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Understanding Marijuana:

A New Look at the

Scientific Evidence

Mitch Earleywine


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a new look at the scientific evidence

Mitch Earleywine

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Copyright 䉷 2002 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.
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Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
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without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Earleywine, Mitchell.
Understanding marijuana : a new look at the scientific evidence /
Mitch Earleywine.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-19-513893-7
1. Marijuana. 2. Cannabis. 3. Marijuana abuse. I. Title.
HV5822.M3 E27 2002
362.29'5—dc21 2001006378

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

I can still recall the first time anyone ever offered me a marijuana ciga-
rette. It happened late in the summer of 1963, when my wife Daphne
and I were walking in the woods with a friend on a remote island off the
coast of British Columbia. Our friend, a visiting poet from San Francisco,
asked us if we had ever tried pot. When we said no, he produced a joint
from his pocket and lit it with his Zippo lighter, offering us each a toke.
Incensed with anger, I refused his offer and even considered reporting
the incident to the local RCMP officer. I had been told many times by
my uncle, then a detective on the Vancouver Vice Squad, that marijuana
use was a stepping-stone to heroin use and that even a single puff could
send one down the nightmare road to addiction. The visiting poet
claimed that smoking marijuana stimulated the creative writing muse and
that smoking pot was the current rage among artists in the Bay area.
When he found out that I was an undergraduate senior majoring in psy-
chology at the University of British Columbia, he asked me, “Do you
know what the main difference is between a poet and a psychologist?
The poet goes for the direct experience of life, including smoking this,
while the psychologist takes notes and tries to come up with a diagnosis.
I participate while you observe.” I can still feel my irritation toward him
to this day.
By the time I completed my Ph.D. in 1968 and joined the psychology
department faculty at the University of Wisconsin the following year,
marijuana use had reached an all-time high, particularly in places like
Madison, where student hippies merged with protesters against the war
in Vietnam and the aroma of marijuana competed with the stench of
vi Foreword

tear gas during many student demonstrations on campus. Pot was openly
smoked by many faculty and graduate students alike at departmental
parties. Many of my students and colleagues were interested in knowing
more about the behavioral and psychological effects of marijuana, but
the literature on this topic was sparse and contradictory.
After I joined the faculty at the University of Washington in the early
1970s, I planned to extend my ongoing research on cognitive and social
determinants of alcohol use to the study of marijuana effects in humans.
For example, I hoped to extrapolate my research on alcohol expectancies
(using the balanced placebo design) to the effects of smoking either active
marijuana or placebo cigarettes. I submitted a research grant proposal in
response to a special, one-time RFA (Request for Applications) issued
jointly by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
(NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to stimulate
research comparing alcohol effects with another widely used psychoac-
tive substance to be selected by the investigator. I proposed to study
expectancy effects in both alcohol and marijuana use and to compare the
effects of both drugs and their respective placebos on behavioral out-
comes, ranging from tension reduction to the expression of aggression in
response to psychosocial provocation. My grant application was reviewed
independently by the study sections of both NIAAA and NIDA. Al-
though my research plan received a high evaluation from reviewers at
NIAAA, it failed to achieve a fundable score from NIDA, even though
my proposed series of studies was identical, except for the choice of
either alcohol or marijuana as the drug to be administered. When I asked
my project office at NIDA why the review committee did not recom-
mend funding for my grant, I was told (in confidence) that my proposal
presented a potential “political problem” for NIDA, particularly if my
findings showed marijuana to be “less of a problem” than alcohol in terms
of its effects on social behaviors such as aggression. NIAAA, on the other
hand, would provide funding for the alcohol research if and only if I
dropped the marijuana studies. This was the first of many lessons I
learned about the political controversy surrounding marijuana research
in this country, a controversy that continues today in the current “War
on Drugs.” According to the U.S. policy of “zero-tolerance,” any mari-
juana use in America (including use for medical purposes) is both bad
and illegal.
Mitch Earleywine deserves considerable credit for his ability to provide
a comprehensive and scientifically objective review of this continuously
Foreword vii

controversial topic in Understanding Marijuana. Readers seeking the lat-

est and most accurate knowledge about marijuana and its effects now
have a solid source of objective information to rely upon as a refreshing
alternative to either the negative bias promoted by many government
publications or the positive spin promoted by pro-pot publications (e.g.,
the magazine High Times). In reading the manuscript, I was continuously
impressed with the breadth and depth of scholarship presented through-
out the chapters. Speaking with the authority of both a noted researcher
in the field of addictive behaviors and as a clinical psychologist who is
experienced in behavior therapy and other treatment approaches, Dr.
Earleywine provides a comprehensive review of the marijuana literature,
ranging from basic biological mechanisms of action to promising ap-
proaches to the prevention and treatment of marijuana problems. The
range of topics covered is indeed impressive. Readers are provided with
a vast array of information about this amazing “green weed,” from its
historical origins dating back to 8000 B.C. to the present day.
In chapter 1, we learn about the important role hemp products have
played over time in the development of both fabric (e.g., rope) and paper
products. In chapter 2, we learn about past and current patterns of mar-
ijuana use, including the fact that up to one-third of Americans reported
smoking marijuana at least once, and that fully 5% reported use in the
past month. Next, we discover that the “stepping-stone” theory first told
to me by my uncle in Vancouver is not supported by contemporary re-
search—the vast majority of those who have tried marijuana do not in
fact go on to harder drugs such as heroin. In chapters 4 and 5, we learn
about the latest research findings about marijuana’s effects on thought
and memory and on its subjective effects such as emotional mood state.
Chapter 6 is a clear and succinct description of the pharmacological ac-
tion and effects of marijuana ingestion followed in chapter 7 by a dis-
cussion of its associated effects on mental and physical health; as noted
by the author, “These results confirm that marijuana is neither com-
pletely harmless nor tragically toxic.”
The timely topic of medical marijuana is addressed in chapter 8. Given
that several states, mostly on the West Coast (including my home state
of Washington), have passed public referendums supporting the use of
marijuana for the treatment of several medical disorders (e.g., reduction
of nausea associated with chemotherapy, appetite enhancement in the
treatment of AIDS, lowering intraocular pressure in the treatment of
glaucoma, and so on), the public need for accurate information on this
viii Foreword

topic has increased enormously. Critics of marijuana use often downplay

its potential medical benefits, since to admit this would threaten the zero-
tolerance doctrine that any use of this plant is both bad and illegal. “There
is no firm research finding to support the proposed medical benefits of
marijuana,” goes the official government response to this question. The
catch-22 here is that the government, including NIDA, has consistently
failed to approve almost any research proposal designed to evaluate the
potential medical benefits, except for a single study currently being con-
ducted at the University of California in San Francisco to assess mari-
juana’s impact on appetite enhancement in patients treated for AIDS.
Social problems often attributed to marijuana use, including the “amo-
tivational syndrome,” impaired driving, and aggression, are covered in
chapter 9. In terms of aggressive responding, the author concludes that
“the drug’s absence of an impact on hostility has led every major com-
mission report to conclude that cannabis does not increase aggression.”
Compared to alcohol, which clearly increases the risk of aggressive re-
sponding, marijuana has the opposite effect. No wonder my research
proposal comparing alcohol and marijuana’s impact on aggression was
not funded by NIDA.
The topics of marijuana law and policy are well delineated in chapter
10, including the pros and cons of both the current prohibition policy
and the alternative approaches of either decriminalization or legalization.
The policy arguments are debated in terms of both their moral and prag-
matic roots. While some countries have adopted a decriminalization pol-
icy (the Netherlands) and others are actively considering this option
(Switzerland and Canada, including my home province of British Colum-
bia), the current U.S. policy prohibiting any lawful marijuana use is un-
likely to change in the near future.
Treatment for marijuana problems is covered in chapter 11. Various
treatment modalities are addressed, including cognitive-behavioral ther-
apy, twelve-step facilitation, and motivational interviewing. The material
presented here shows that people who are motivated to eliminate their
use of marijuana (abstinence goal) or to minimize its negative effects
(harm reduction goal) have several promising alternative treatment ap-
proaches to choose from.
In his final thoughts in the last chapter, Dr. Earleywine cautions read-
ers that due to the complexity and political context of marijuana re-
search, “any attempt to explain this research may say more about the
explainer than the explained.” True, but in this case I strongly endorse
Foreword ix

his even-handed efforts in presenting relevant research and related issues

about marijuana in a balanced and objective fashion in a way that will
appeal to the interested reader. He also shows a keen sense of humor in
getting his points across. In the final pages, he urges compassion in our
response to those who choose to use marijuana, despite its continuing
status as an illegal drug. As he states in his final sentence, “Perhaps we
could tolerate people who want to use marijuana without causing harm
to themselves or others.”

G. Alan Marlatt
University of Washington
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As I answer questions about marijuana, I am constantly reminded of three

ideas. The first idea is Einstein’s oft-quoted expression that everything
should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. The research on
marijuana is extensive, lending itself to incomplete summary and inter-
pretation. A description of marijuana can stress parallels to medicine,
harmless intoxicants, or addictive narcotics. Perhaps all of these are true,
in part, but they remain incomplete. A narrow focus prevents these de-
scriptions from providing a full picture of the substance. These attempts
at quick summaries may end up presenting cannabis as simpler than it
is. I have tried to avoid this problem by providing a thorough look at all
of the available research, no matter how confusing or contradictory.
The second idea concerns the distinction between research and its
meaning. Data are separate from interpretations. Investigators present
data and then interpret results. Sometimes results support an author’s
conclusions. Sometimes a close look reveals that the conclusions are un-
justified. The interpretations often remind me of responses to those
splotchy blots of ink from the infamous Rorschach test. People purport-
edly see these ambiguous pictures in a way that reveals more about them
than the ink.
Authors may respond the same way to marijuana research. Their in-
terpretations may tell more about their own biases than the data. For
example, prohibitionists might mention that THC often appears in the
blood of people involved in auto accidents. Yet they might omit the fact
that most of these people also drank alcohol (see chapter 9). Antipro-
hibitionists might cite a large study that showed no sign of memory prob-
xii Preface

lems in chronic marijuana smokers. Yet they might neglect to mention

that the tests were so easy that even a demented person could perform
them (see chapter 4). I have tried to avoid this problem by providing
appropriate detail about research, so that readers can interpret results for
The last idea may be the most controversial: some things are neither
good nor evil. The common human desire to split the world into two
categories is understandable. Decisions are easier when everything is
black and white. Yet the world remains in frustrating but glorious color.
Forcing everything into two categories can be a depressing and futile task.
Every year fire warms some people and kills others. Water quenches
thirst but also drowns. Aspirin relieves pain or causes overdose. Labeling
these as good or evil requires many caveats and may be a pointless task.
Perhaps marijuana is the same, but no one can decide without the ap-
propriate information. Here’s a presentation of a vast literature for those
who prefer to think for themselves than be told what to think.

I’m to blame for all that’s in here, but plenty of folks helped immensely.
My hearty thanks to all of the following, who supported this book in
many ways: Catharine Carlin, Alexandria Cymrot, Bob Earleywine,
Dahlia Earleywine, Joe Earleywine, Tamar Gollan and Mark Myers, Da-
vid and Felice Gordis, Lester Grinspoon, Josh Gross, Evan Helmuth, Sara
Hopfauf, Jack Huntington, Leslie Iversen, Susan Kesser, Joe LaBrie, Boaz
Levy, Linda Mathews, Norman Miller and Vicki Pollock, Kristine Rapan,
Lucy Ravitch, David Rothblum, Aaron Saiger, Jim De Santis, Domenico
Scarlatti, Jason Schiffman, John Storr, Susan and Clark Van Scoyk, Brian
Varnum, and Terry Wager. Special thanks to the Wednesday Night
Group, my Psychology 680 seminar, and all the students who took Psych
165, “The Drug Class!”
My dear wife, Elana, read every word of this book and many that did
not make it. She diagnosed and endured my monthly bouts of PMS (pot
manuscript syndrome) and went above and beyond every clichéd ex-
pression for tolerance, perseverance, and understanding. I dedicate this
work to her.

1. Highlights in the History of Cannabis, 3

2. Cannabis Use and Misuse, 29

3. Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention

of Drug Problems, 49

4. Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory, 67

5. Subjective Effects, 97

6. Cannabis Pharmacology, 121

7. Marijuana’s Health Effects, 143

8. Medical Marijuana, 167

9. Social Problems, 197

10. Law and Policy, 223

11. Treatment for Marijuana Problems, 247

12. Final Thoughts, 271

References, 275

Index, 319
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Highlights in the History of Cannabis

Humans use nearly every part of the infamous green weed Cannabis sa-
tiva. The plant grows quickly in many environments and can reach a height
of 20 feet. Few natural pests attack the crop; few extremes in weather chal-
lenge its growth. The leaves consist of five or more narrow leaflets, each ra-
diating from a slender stem attached to a thick, hollow stalk. The jagged
edge of each leaflet resembles the blade of a serrated knife. The species is
dioecious, meaning both female and male varieties of the plant exist. The
male grows taller, topped by flowers covered with pollen. The shorter fe-
male plant, with its larger, pollen-catching flowers, produces seeds and
protects them with a sticky resin. The stalks help produce fiber; the seeds
provide food and oil. The flowers, leaves, and resin appear in medical and
intoxicating preparations. Each day, smiling teens buy hemp shirts. Re-
tailers sell snacks made from the seed. Glaucoma patients puff cannabis
cigarettes in hope of saving their sight, and many people worldwide in-
hale marijuana smoke in an effort to alter consciousness. These industrial,
medical, and recreational uses for the plant go back thousands of years,
contributing to its spread from Taiwan throughout the world. Although
industrial hemp, medical marijuana, and cannabis the intoxicant stem
from the same species, in many ways they each have their own histories.

A History of Industrial Hemp

Unlike most plants that provide drugs, hemp provides dozens of prod-
ucts. None of these items contains meaningful amounts of tetrahydro-

4 Understanding Marijuana

cannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. In

contrast to psychoactive cannabis plants, which contain 2% THC or
more, industrial hemp often contains as little as .15% THC (Kirk, 1999).
At this concentration, smoking a whole field would not create intoxica-
tion. Hemp provides fiber, cloth, paper, and food, as well as many soaps,
shampoos, and oils. People grew hemp widely for these industrial uses,
which helped the plant spread from Asia, through India, Africa, Europe,
and the Americas.

Hemp Fiber

Hemp fibers were likely the first in history. Archeologists in Taiwan un-
covered strands decorating clay pots from 8000 B.C. (Chang, 1968; Kung,
1959). Comprehending events from so long ago can prove difficult. This
first use of cannabis fibers precedes recorded history, in an era when the
world was markedly different. Humans may have barely understood how
to cultivate plants. Other fibers were not available. Linen production did
not begin until 3500 B.C. Another millennium passed before cotton’s
cultivation in 2500 B.C. (Grun, 1982). Hemp preceded each by
thousands of years. No one knows the genius who first turned cannabis
stalks into strands, or who discovered that twisting many together added
strength, but these innovations started a long and productive career for
the plant. New uses for hemp developed throughout the last 10,000
years. The plant’s medicinal and intoxicating properties increased in pop-
ularity, too, but not until much later.
One early use of hemp demonstrates its potential danger. Ancient
Chinese archers used the plant to make bowstrings. These new bow-
strings proved superior to those made of bamboo. They fired arrows far-
ther and more forcefully. Although no one has ever died from an over-
dose of smoked marijuana (Petro, 1997a), the plant may have killed
many by helping sling sharp arrows into tender flesh. Bowstrings, how-
ever, were less important than rope, one of hemp fiber’s most important
uses for thousands of years.
The need for strong and durable rope, particularly in sailing, helped
hemp become popular throughout the world. One of the first leaders in
the manufacture of rope was also an early cultivator of hemp: southern
Russia. Their first harvests began in the seventh century B.C. (Rubin,
1975). Around 200 B.C., Hieron II of ancient Greece transported hemp
from France to make ropes for his ships (Stefanis, Ballas, & Madianou,
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 5

1975). Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.) recorded hemp’s use in creating rope
in his book The Natural History. Hemp ropes found in England date from
100 A.D. The plant for these cords was obviously imported, for the area
did not cultivate cannabis until 400 A.D. Vikings hauled hemp ropes with
them to Iceland and took hemp seeds on their travels as early as 850 A.D.
(Abel, 1980).
Because these ropes contributed to the success of ocean voyages,
hemp cultivation and production grew more important. By the end of
the first millennium A.D., Italian ships outfitted with hemp rope domi-
nated the oceans. Venice grew particularly famous for its fibers and ropes,
which had a reputation for quality. Venetian hemp spinners belonged to
a special guild. The laws governing their work were very strict; penalties
for poor products included harsh fines and beatings. Ships built in Venice
required the best riggings made from only the highest quality hemp. By
the 1500s, England’s developing navy required more rope than ever. In
1533, King Henry VIII decreed that every farmer should raise some
hemp. Those who refused paid a fine. Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth
I, later increased the penalty (Abel, 1980), but farmers preferred the fine
to raising hemp. Despite growing demand, the plant brought little in-
come. Its production had other drawbacks, too. The crop had to be
placed aside to allow the resin to weaken and release the fibers from the
stalk. These rotting plants stunk, making whole farms smell bad (Tusser,
1580). Birds who ate the hemp seeds purportedly tasted peculiar, too
(Thistle & Cook, 1972).
Because the local farmers were unwilling to raise hemp, England im-
ported it. By the early 1600s, most of England’s hemp came from Russia.
Unfortunately, the Russians of the era had a reputation for unsavory
business practices. Since hemp sold by weight, some Russian exporters
allegedly threw trash into the hemp bales to increase the weight and
price. In an effort to decrease dependence on Russia, England com-
manded the American colonies to grow the crop (Abel, 1980). Residents
of the New World hardly helped in the quest for more hemp. Jamestown
colonists grew quality plants by 1616 (Gray, 1958), but they devoted
larger plots to a more lucrative and deadly crop—tobacco (Bishop, 1966).
By 1629, shipbuilding started in Salem, Massachusetts. Merchants there
purchased every stalk of hemp available. New England towns built their
own rope factories known as ropewalks. Irish immigrants adept at spin-
ning hemp into thread opened American spinning schools. By the 1700s,
the colonies used all their locally grown hemp. Ben Franklin himself told
6 Understanding Marijuana

England that the colonists did not have enough hemp to meet their own
needs, so they could hardly export it (Carrier, 1962).
Hemp production altered America in many ways. By the time of the
revolutionary war, Kentucky began cultivation. Their crop, however, was
not a favorite among Americans. Northern manufacturers preferred im-
ported hemp’s superior quality. Henry Clay, the legendary “great com-
promiser” and congressman from the state, helped promote Kentucky’s
products. He encouraged Congress to pass high tariffs on imported hemp,
increasing its price (Eaton, 1966). Production increased the slave trade
enormously, because harvesting and processing the plant was arduous,
time-consuming work. The Civil War interfered with this production
dramatically. With no northern merchants buying the crop, southern
farmers had little reason to grow it. The sale of hemp products decreased
after the war, in part, because the technology for processing cotton im-
proved. Nevertheless, hemp did not disappear. In 1890, the United States
still manufactured hemp ropes. Demand also increased during both world
wars. During World War II, the government even used the classic, pa-
triotic film Hemp for Victory (1942) to encourage farmers to grow the
crop. Subsequent laws against the plant decreased the production of
hemp rope markedly since those times. Most ropes today are made of
nylon or cotton fiber. Nevertheless, products of hemp fiber remain avail-
able. Hammocks fashioned from the ropes still sell today. Other old and
new products require weaving the fiber into fabric.

Hemp Fabric

Humans have fashioned cloth from hemp for at least 2,400 years, but
the fabric has varied dramatically in popularity. Interlacing hemp fibers
to form cloth helped minimize the need for animal skins. Those of us
with central heat may find it difficult to imagine the importance of hemp
fabric for staying warm. These clothes may have also felt more comfort-
able than wearing a piece of some dead beast. This fabric became popular
in many parts of the ancient world. Herodotus’s Histories from 450 B.C.
mentioned hemp clothing in the land of the Scythians and ancient
Greeks. The Chinese Book of Rites (from around 200 B.C.) discussed
hemp fabric (Rubin, 1975), and a sample of hemp cloth from the Chou
dynasty (1122–249 B.C.) was uncovered in 1972 (Li, 1974). The ancient
Chinese even used the plant to make shoes (Abel, 1980). The fabric
remained popular in the Middle Ages. The ornate tomb of the French
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 7

queen Arnegunde, who died in 570 A.D., contained gold, jewels, and a
hemp cloth (Werner, 1964). Some suggest that including hemp cloth in
the tomb reflects the fabric’s regal stature (Abel, 1980).
Hemp cloth’s prestigious position eventually faded when cotton grew
more popular in the 1800s. As Europeans invaded the Americas, they
initially used tons of hemp for fabric. The cold winters required warm
clothes, and hemp provided the necessary cloth. But demand for hemp
fabric decreased by the end of the Civil War, just as it had for the fiber.
Cotton’s improved harvesting and processing diminished hemp’s impor-
tance (Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974). Synthetic fabrics also contributed
to hemp’s reduction. Current ecological concerns may help facilitate
hemp’s return. Modern hemp farmers report that cotton yields less fiber
per acre, requires more water and pesticides, and may cause more harm
to the environment. In addition, hemp may also have less negative impact
on water and land than synthetic fibers made from petrochemicals.
Woven hemp products have regained some of their old popularity.
Hats, shirts, pants, and even wedding gowns (Evans, 1999) employ the
ancient fabric. Many hemp companies advertise as ecologically friendly
and economical sources of cloth. Larger, mainstream companies are also
experimenting with the manufacture and marketing of hats and shirts
made from hemp. Because the plant remains illegal in the United States,
American manufacturers must import their raw materials. Soon, how-
ever, American-grown hemp may return. Kentucky police arrested actor
Woody Harrelson for planting four hemp seeds in protest of Kentucky’s
laws against the crop (Rosenthal & Kubby, 1996). Legislation passed in
Hawaii and North Dakota in 1999 may permit the first American hemp
harvests in over 50 years, provided the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
agrees to issue appropriate licenses.

Hemp Paper

For hundreds of years, ancient authors wrote on stone, wood, bamboo,

silk, or parchment (Garraty & Gay, 1981; Grun, 1982). Records reveal
that hemp paper initially appeared around the first century B.C. Despite
this evidence, legends attribute the invention to the Chinese bureaucrat
Ts’ai Lun, a creative and flamboyant character, who purportedly unveiled
his new product in 105 A.D. Ts’ai Lun’s dramatic story may help explain
why he gets credit for the initial creation of paper. The inventor’s con-
temporaries showed little enthusiasm for his innovative writing tool. In
8 Understanding Marijuana

an effort to increase paper’s popularity, Ts’ai Lun claimed the substance

could raise the dead—a remarkable feat for any new product. He feigned
his own death and had people burn paper to ostensibly bring him back
to life (Carter, 1968). The tradition of burning paper at funerals spread
through many parts of Asia. Ts’ai Lun not only marketed his invention
with this dramatic display, but he also created a new use for it. Other
people began burning paper at funerals, too. Soon this inexpensive and
lightweight material replaced the silk and bamboo used for writing.
The technique for manufacturing paper required two of China’s native
plants: hemp and the mulberry tree. The bark of the tree and the fiber
of the plant were ground together to form a pulp. Manufacturers then
covered the pulp with water. Intermingled fibers eventually rose to the
top and were placed in molds to dry as paper. The process remained a
Chinese secret for hundreds of years, but it eventually spread to Japan.
The Arabs learned the process in the 900s A.D., perhaps from Chinese
prisoners captured during the Battle of Samarkand. Spain and other
countries subsequently mastered the procedure, and within a few hun-
dred years paper mills appeared throughout Europe (Abel, 1980).
Most paper manufacturers today use wood pulp. Hemp, however,
may prove more economical and ecologically appropriate than wood. The
plant is ready to harvest more quickly than trees, and it causes less dam-
age to the ecosystem (Kirk, 1999). Hemp’s illegal status prevents large-
scale experiments with its use in paper production in the United States.
Importing adds to the expense of raw materials, making hemp paper
more expensive than some paper fashioned from wood pulp. In fact,
some assert that the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed a prohib-
itive tax on hemp, arose when the owners of forests and chemical com-
panies decided to eliminate alternative sources of paper (Herer, 1999;
Rosenthal & Kubby, 1996). Despite its slightly higher price, the paper
remains available today.

Hemp Food

The first use of hemp as food remains unknown, but examples of dishes
made from the edible plant appear all across the world. Galen (130–200
A.D.) mentions that wealthy Romans enjoyed an elaborate hemp-seed
dessert (Abel, 1980). For many years in Poland and Lithuania, cooks
served a hemp-seed porridge known as semieniatka on Christmas Eve
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 9

(Benet, 1975). Natives of India report that hemp remains the favorite
food of the god Shiva, as it has been for thousands of years.
Hemp seeds have also served as a food for nutritional reasons. Once
they are cleaned they possess little THC, but they do contain 20 to 25%
protein, including all the amino acids essential for human health. The
seeds also contain many necessary minerals, such as calcium and potas-
sium. Yet they have few of the toxic heavy metals like strontium, mer-
cury, or arsenic. The seeds are roasted and ground into flour or pressed
to derive oil. The flour retains the protein and minerals. The oil from
the seeds contains essential fatty acids, which humans require to digest
certain vitamins and build new cells (Wirtshafter, 1997). Hemp contrib-
utes to many foods today, even in the United States, where growing the
plant is illegal. Roasted hemp seeds are a popular snack. They are pressed
with nuts and honey into health-food bars. One company grinds them
with peanuts to make a buttery spread. Another uses the oil in a salad
dressing. Others bake the flour into chips and pretzels that contain extra
protein. The Hemp Seed Cookbook contains more than 20 relevant recipes
(Miller & Wirtshafter, 1991). Even animals eat the plant. Bird feed con-
tinued to contain sterilized seeds, even after the first federal legislation
against cannabis appeared in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

A History of Medical Marijuana

The cannabis plant’s history as the source of hemp is separate from its
story in medicine. Cannabis’s use as a treatment for a variety of illnesses
helped it spread from ancient Asia throughout the world. The plant con-
sistently appeared in pharmacopoeia and folk medicine as a treatment
for pain, seizure, muscle spasm, poor appetite, nausea, insomnia, asthma,
and depression. Its potential to alleviate labor pains, premenstrual symp-
toms, and menstrual cramps also received attention in multiple medical
reports from ancient times to the present. Marijuana’s possible medical
application has continued to increase its popularity, even with individuals
who would frown upon recreational use. Therapeutic cannabis has also
provided intriguing scientific and legal research, as discussed later in this
book. The history of marijuana as medicine is extensive and includes
many characters on many continents.
Medicinal use of cannabis began around 2737 B.C., long after its first
10 Understanding Marijuana

use as a fiber. The mystical Chinese emperor Shen Neng introduced these
pharmaceutical uses of cannabis. He also discovered many other medi-
cines. These included ephedra, a natural stimulant that helped asthma
and led to the invention of amphetamine; camellia sinensis, the first caf-
feinated tea; and ginseng, the popular herbal panacea (Aldrich, 1997).
Legends often develop around people who make new discoveries, and
Shen Neng is no exception. He purportedly could see into his own stom-
ach and observe the impact of herbs on his body, making him a phenom-
enal authority on their pharmaceutical effects (Wallnofer & Von Rot-
tauscher, 1965). Emperor Shen Neng prescribed cannabis tea for gout,
malaria, beriberi, rheumatism, and, curiously, poor memory (Abel,
1980). Although other treatments have developed for most of these mal-
adies, marijuana’s impact on rheumatism remains part of modern re-
search (Turner & ElSohly, 1981).
The world and its medicines were markedly different 5,000 years ago.
For example, Egyptians introduced the 365-day calendar year about this
time. A Chinese court musician fashioned the first bamboo flute, and the
Cheops pyramid was still relatively new (Grun, 1982). Medicine re-
mained akin to magic, so some treatments were not ideal. Shen Neng’s
herbs probably provided as much relief as any alternatives in the era,
particularly in China. A few other drugs were available in other parts of
the world. Opium was popular in the Middle East but had not reached
China yet (Blum, 1984; Scott, 1969). Natives of South America chewed
coca leaves roughly 200 years after medicinal marijuana’s discovery (2500
B.C.), but they lived too far away to provide pharmaceuticals to the East
(Maisto, Galizio, & Connors, 1995). Thus, marijuana was probably one
of the best medicines available for many ailments. The Chinese under-
stood the intoxicating side effects of this popular remedy. Physicians
warned against large doses, which led to “seeing devils” and “communi-
cating with spirits” (Li, 1974, 1975). Nevertheless, medicinal use of the
plant continued, just as the use of other psychoactive drugs progressed.
Cannabis eventually spread from China to India. By 1400 B.C., the
sacred Indian text Atharvaveda listed marijuana as a holy plant that could
relieve stress. Given Hindu sanctions against the consumption of alcohol,
cannabis remained one of the few substances appropriate for alleviating
anxiety in this culture. The plant’s notorious drying of mucous mem-
branes, such as the “cotton mouth” reported by contemporary users, led
the ancient Indian healer Sushruta to prescribe it for congestion. Sushruta
also recommended the drug for fevers or inflammation of the mucous
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 11

membranes (Aldrich, 1997). Other healers of India prescribed it suc-

cessfully for coughs and asthma, and unsuccessfully for leprosy and dan-
druff (Nahas, 1990).
Medical marijuana spread farther while new uses for it developed back
in China. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder mentioned marijuana’s use as
a painkilling analgesic but warned that excessive consumption could
cause impotence. The Romans learned of cannabis’s pharmaceutical
properties as they stormed through new countries. A physician in Nero’s
army named Pedacius Dioscorides recommended the juice of the mari-
juana seed for earaches. (Later research confirmed the efficacy of this
treatment [Kabilek, Krejci, & Santavy, 1960].) In 70 A.D., Dioscorides
compiled a pharmacopoeia listing marijuana among the many exotic
plants with medical applications. Galen, the ancient Greek doctor whose
impact on Western medicine lasted centuries, used the drug to treat pain
and flatulence. Back in China, Shen Neng’s teachings remained well
known. Around 200 A.D., the first pharmacopoeia of the East, based on
his work, listed marijuana as a medicine (Abel, 1980). The ancient Chi-
nese founder of surgery, Hua T’o, used cannabis combined with alcohol
as an anesthetic around this time (Li, 1974, 1975).
Evidence suggests that new uses of the drug developed outside of
China, Greece, and Rome. One novel application concerned the labor of
childbirth. Marijuana traces appeared in the archeological remains of a
young girl from the fourth century A.D. She apparently died in Jerusalem
while giving birth (Zias et al., 1993). The medicine may have eased pain
and increased uterine contractions (Aldrich, 1997). This obstetric use
continued at least into the 1800s (Grigor, 1852). Women in Cambodia
and Vietnam ingest tea made from marijuana to alleviate postpartum
distress even today. Studies of fetal exposure to marijuana have produced
mixed results and considerable controversy (Dreher, 1997), but the prac-
tice of using cannabis during delivery apparently began at least 2,400
years ago.
In addition to many reports of medicinal effects, warnings against
abuse also continued. As happens today, some ancient concerns about
the negative side effects of cannabis arose from confusing reports of its
consequences. By 1000 A.D., some of the first concerns of the drug’s ill
effects appeared in Ibn Wahshiyah’s Arabic text On Poisons. Wahshiyah
warned that hashish (a potent cannabis intoxicant similar to charas) ren-
ders one blind and mute, eventually leading to continuous wretching and
death (Levey, 1966). In fact, no documented cases of fatal overdose exist
12 Understanding Marijuana

(Petro, 1997a). Such cautions may have been more extreme in the Arab
world because hashish remained more popular there. People in the Arab
countries used more of the drug, increasing concern about abuse. Fewer
warnings appeared in Europe at this time, perhaps because cannabis in-
toxicants remained extremely uncommon. Medical marijuana appeared
as an ingredient in a popular European ointment of the era (Grattan &
Singer, 1952), but warnings about the drug were rare.
By the twelfth century, marijuana had reached from Egypt to the rest
of Africa. Archeologists in Ethiopia uncovered pipes containing traces of
cannabis from the 1300s (Van der Merwe, 1975). Du Toit (1975) sug-
gests that the Bantus may have brought the plant down the eastern coast
of Africa. Dagga, as cannabis was known in Africa, had a medical repu-
tation that varied from tribe to tribe. Hottentots and Mfengu prescribed
it for snakebites. The Sotho used cannabis during childbirth as the natives
of Jerusalem had done. Residents of Rhodesia also used marijuana to treat
anthrax, dysentery, and malaria. In South Africa, the drug served as an
asthma treatment. Although recreational use certainly contributed to the
spread of marijuana from Egypt to the rest of Africa, well-known me-
dicinal uses continued and new ones developed (Du Toit, 1980).
Increased travel to the Middle East, Africa, and India invariably led to
more European publications addressing medical marijuana. Francois Ra-
belais, the French doctor and humorist, published his famous book Gar-
gantua and Pantagruel in 1532. The text describes Pantagruelion (can-
nabis), which he claimed would ease the pains of gout, cure horses of
colic, and treat burns. Garcia da Orta, a Portuguese physician who lived
in the Indian city of Goa, described many herbal remedies, including
marijuana’s ability to enhance appetite (da Orta, 1563). By 1578 in
China, Li Shih-Chen wrote of cannabis’s antiemetic and antibiotic ef-
fects. The medical reputation of marijuana continued into the seven-
teenth century. In 1621, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy sug-
gested medical marijuana may aid mood disorders. This novel idea guided
research on and off, even as late as the 1970s (Grinspoon, 1971; Grin-
spoon & Bakalar, 1997).
Hemp received its scientific name in the latter half of the eighteenth
century. In 1753, Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who classified nearly
every living thing, dubbed the plant Cannabis sativa. He placed the spe-
cies in the small family known as Cannabinaceae, which includes only
cannabis and the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. In 1783, Lamarck, the man
whose infamy stems from his incorrect hypotheses about evolution,
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 13

sought to distinguish the hemp plants of Europe from those in India. He

suggested a separate species native to India, Cannabis Indica, known for
its shorter stature and greater quantity of resin. Much later, in 1924, a
team of Russian botanists identified Cannabis ruderalis, a third species
shorter than the other two. Whether all these types are variations on one
plant or serve as separate species remains hotly debated even today
(Schultes, Klein, Plowman, & Lockwood, 1975).
At the same time as the initial debates on classification, marijuana’s
medical reputation spread to the Americas. The 1764 edition of The New
England Dispensatory recommended hemp roots to treat inflamed skin.
The 1794 Edinburgh New Dispensary prescribed marijuana oil for many
problems, including incontinence, coughs, and venereal disease. Never-
theless, few medical professionals in Europe or America prescribed the
drug often. Its lack of popularity may stem from several factors. First,
the treatments may not have been optimal. For example, marijuana oil
likely did little to help syphilis. In addition, the potency of available
cannabis extracts and tinctures varied considerably. But as more case
studies attested to the drug’s utility, the demand for it increased. Finan-
cial incentives grew with this demand, and soon quality preparations be-
came more accessible. One man often receives credit (or blame) for this
increased interest in medicinal cannabis in England and the Americas, the
Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy.
In 1833, O’Shaughnessy worked for the British East India Company
and the Medical College of Calcutta. Marijuana already served as a
common remedy in India, inspiring O’Shaughnessy to investigate the
drug’s impact on many maladies. His results appeared in 1842 in
the journal Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Bombay.
O’Shaughnessy’s first experiments used animals; he noted greater intox-
ication in carnivorous species. Whether or not carnivorous humans report
greater sensitivity to marijuana compared to vegetarians remains un-
known. These animal studies minimized O’Shaughnessy’s fears of adverse
effects from the drug, inspiring him to perform research on humans. He
first administered marijuana to people with rheumatism. The treatment
eased their pain, just as Shen Neng had suggested a few millennia earlier.
Patients also reported enhanced mood and appetite. O’Shaughnessy’s at-
tempts at alleviating the discomfort associated with rabies, cholera, tet-
anus, and epilepsy also met with some limited success. Although medical
marijuana did not cure these diseases, it eased the pain, nausea, and spas-
ticity that often accompanies them. As word of this work reached En-
14 Understanding Marijuana

gland and the Americas, the drug grew increasingly more popular (Abel,
The use of marijuana also increased in France around this same time.
Dr. Jacques Joseph Moreau de Tours began his experiments with can-
nabis in the late 1830s. His primary work focused on the cognitive effects
of the drug, particularly on the parallels between intoxication and mental
illness. (This research and its connection to the Hashish Club appear in
the discussion of cannabis as an intoxicant in the next section.) Moreau
also investigated marijuana as a treatment for depression, as Robert
Burton had suggested in 1621. His results were not encouraging (Moreau,
1845). Modern research on THC’s utility as an antidepressant also has
produced mixed results, sometimes confirming Moreau’s initial reports,
sometimes helping specific individuals in certain cases (Grinspoon, 1971;
Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997).
Back in the Americas, the Ohio State Medical Society met in 1860 to
summarize the medical uses of marijuana. The conference reported fa-
vorable outcomes for treating pain, inflammation, and cough (McMeens,
1860). The 1868 U.S. Dispensatory listed pages of medical uses for tinc-
ture of cannabis, an extract often formed by soaking marijuana in alcohol.
The extract purportedly improved appetite, sexual interest, mental dis-
orders, gout, cholera, hydrophobia, and insomnia (Wood & Bache, 1868).
The drug’s medical reputation had also continued in England. In 1890,
Sir J. Russell Reynolds, chief physician to Queen Victoria, praised the
drug in the prestigious medical journal Lancet. He claimed cannabis suc-
cessfully treated insomnia, facial tics, asthma, and menstrual problems
(Reynolds, 1890). The queen herself allegedly used a cannabis extract to
alleviate cramps (Randall & O’Leary, 1998).
By the turn of the twentieth century, marijuana tinctures and extracts
became more widely available. In the early 1900s, the Squibb Company
offered a cannabis and morphine combination called Chlorodyne for
stomach problems (Roffman, 1982). Labels from medical marijuana
products from the beginning of the century claimed antispasmodic, se-
dating, analgesic, and hypnotic effects (Aldrich, 1997). By the 1930s,
both Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis marketed such products (Mikuriya & Al-
drich, 1988). Nevertheless, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which re-
quired a special fee for the transport of marijuana, decreased medical
use. The act required a prohibitive tax on the drug, which could reach
$100 per ounce—quite a bit of money in 1937. (Details of this act appear
in chapter 10’s discussion of legal issues.) The U.S. Pharmacopoeia, which
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 15

originally listed cannabis in 1850 as a cure for many ailments, removed

the drug by 1941 (Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974). In the 1940s and 1950s,
both medicinal use and research decreased markedly, particularly in the
United States. One series of studies performed in Czechoslovakia in the
late 1950s confirmed cannabis’s antibiotic and analgesic effects (Kabilek,
Krejci, & Santavy, 1960), but few other studies were published during
this era.
For centuries, nearly every medicinal use of marijuana seemed com-
parable to the initial treatments described by Emperor Shen Neng. Fi-
nally, in the 1970s, data suggested a new medical application unlike any
previously proposed—the treatment of glaucoma. This disorder, a leading
cause of blindness, accompanies increased pressure inside the eye. Al-
though successful treatments exist for the problem, some have odd side
effects like blurred vision and headaches. In addition, a few individuals
respond poorly to available medications and procedures. Some develop
tolerance to the drugs, minimizing their ability to lower the pressure
within the eye. A few patients receive surgery but show only small im-
provements. The discovery of marijuana’s impact on intraocular pressure
combined with these difficulties associated with other treatments sug-
gested that cannabis may serve as a good medication for the problem.
The initial support for marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma appeared
inadvertently in two different settings. A study at the University of Cal-
ifornia in Los Angeles (UCLA), designed to confirm police reports of
cannabis-induced pupil dilation, found slight constriction of the pupil
instead. Pupil constriction often accompanies decreased intraocular pres-
sure, as it did in this case. Further work revealed the effect occurred for
people with glaucoma as well (Grinspoon and Bakalar, 1997; Hepler &
Petrus, 1976). At least one person with glaucoma made this discovery
on his own—Robert Randall. The considerable force on Randall’s optic
nerve created the illusion of halos around lights. As innocuous as this
symptom may sound, the halos signal the intense pressure that eventually
leads to blindness. He had used all the treatments available at that time
but found no relief. Once, after smoking marijuana, he noticed that the
halos disappeared. His regular use of medical marijuana helped keep the
pressure within his eye from creating total blindness. Nevertheless, he
was arrested for marijuana possession and cultivation. He endured intense
legal battles and submitted to considerable research. He finally became
one of the few modern, legal users of marijuana for medicinal purposes
(Randall & O’Leary, 1998).
16 Understanding Marijuana

Some of the latest developments in the history of medical cannabis

and its derivatives concern the treatment of nausea and weight loss as-
sociated with chemotherapy and AIDS. Healers identified marijuana’s
antiemetic and appetite-enhancing effects at least by the 1500s (Abel,
1980). Many modern sufferers have turned to the drug for relief. Nabi-
lone, a chemical derivative of one of marijuana’s active components, was
developed by Lily Research Laboratories and shows some of the same
healing qualities as marijuana (Lemberger & Rowe, 1975). Unfortunately,
this drug may prove toxic with continued use. It apparently builds up in
brain tissue, preventing long-term prescription (Randall & O’Leary,
1998). Dronabinol, a synthetic version of THC sold under the brand
name Marinol, mimics some of marijuana’s therapeutic effects. This drug
also increases appetite and decreases nausea.
Despite dronabinol’s established positive effects, many argue for mar-
ijuana’s superiority on medical and economic grounds. Patients prefer
smoked marijuana to this medication. Anyone who is vomiting and nau-
seated may find swallowing a pill quite difficult. Because patients must
digest the orally administered dronabinol, the effects do not appear as
rapidly. Many claim that the dosage is much easier to modify with
smoked marijuana, too. After a few puffs and a brief waiting period,
patients can decide to increase their dose as they see fit. Dronabinol pills
do not lend themselves to this sort of quick and easy alteration of dosage.
The pills are also markedly more expensive. Patients could spend from
$600 to over $1,000 per month on dronabinol; comparable doses of mar-
ijuana cost considerably less (Rosenthal & Kubby, 1996; Zimmer & Mor-
gan, 1997).
The primary deterrent to using medical marijuana concerns legal sanc-
tions. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, meaning it has no approved
medical value. Doctors cannot prescribe it. Possession can lead to harsh
penalties, including fines and imprisonment. In contrast, the FDA ap-
proved dronabinol for cancer patients in 1985 and for AIDS patients in
1992. In July 1999, the Drug Enforcement Agency even reclassified dron-
abinol as a Schedule III rather than a Schedule II drug, decreasing some
of the paperwork and hassle required for prescribing it. Given marijuana’s
lower cost and potential efficacy, many have challenged its classification
in Schedule I. Some physicians and organizations hope to help many
suffering people and continue the history of medical marijuana by work-
ing toward reclassification (Grinspoon, 1971; Grinspoon & Bakalar,
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 17

A History of Cannabis the Intoxicant

The story of cannabis as a medicine is separate from its role as a recre-

ational drug. The consumption of cannabis solely for psychoactive, mind-
altering effects differs from other forms of use. Industrial hemp alters
consciousness only in those who find fashion a source of ecstasy. Ailing
patients who use medical marijuana report altered thoughts and feelings,
but the alleviation of symptoms seems the primary goal. Some individuals
use cannabis as part of religious ritual, with varying emphasis on intoxi-
cation. Recreational use of the drug relates to many artistic, religious,
legal, and economic factors. The history of this form of cannabis con-
sumption reveals a great deal about humankind’s reactions to novelty,
pleasure, and the unknown.
Given the origins of hemp in Asia, recreational cannabis consumption
may have developed there first. Patients who ingested marijuana as med-
icine probably experienced its psychoactive effects. Differentiating med-
ical and intoxicating use essentially depended on the presence of an ill-
ness. Emperor Shen Neng’s patients back in 2737 B.C. may have
consumed the plant even in the absence of symptoms. Ancient Chinese
who ingested cannabis for fun rather than relief from sickness would
qualify as the first recreational users. Cannabis was not the earliest known
intoxicant. People had been drinking alcohol since at least 6400 B.C., and
perhaps since 8000 B.C. (Mellaart, 1967; Roueche, 1963). The Assyrians
and Sumerians had used opium for roughly a thousand years before Shen
Neng (Scott, 1969), though it may not have reached China until 800
A.D. (Maisto et al., 1995). Industrial hemp preceded these drugs, but
cannabis the intoxicant did not.
Views of the new intoxicant are not well documented for a couple of
millennia after its first ingestion. Eventually, attitudes about the drug
varied across different eras and locales, much as they do today. Around
600 B.C., China’s Taoist movement grew more popular. Taoists of the
day disapproved of cannabis (Abel, 1980). This initial condemnation pre-
ceded Asia’s iron age and even the development of the metal plow (Gar-
raty & Gay, 1981). Perhaps because the drug was not widely known
outside of China, it was not condemned elsewhere. To other ancients,
cannabis intoxication seemed more an oddity than a sin. Around 450
B.C., Herodotus, the Greek father of historical narrative, mentioned the
drug in his riveting chronicle The Histories. He described a Scythian fu-
18 Understanding Marijuana

neral rite that included inhaling the smoke from cannabis seeds (Herod-
otus, 1999). The Soviet archeologist Rudenko found evidence that con-
firms this practice (Rudenko, 1970). Scythians may have indulged in this
intoxicant even between funerals, but Herodotus does not mention it.
Much later, in Greece, Plutarch (47–127 A.D.) described Thracians
throwing the tops of plants on the fire, huffing the fumes, and falling
asleep. This plant was likely cannabis. Neither Herodotus nor Plutarch
condemned the practices of these people; they simply reported on the
habit of another culture.
China’s attitudes about cannabis eventually changed. Around Plu-
tarch’s time, in 100 A.D., the Taoists began dabbling in alchemy. They
purportedly used cannabis to induce hallucinations (Abel, 1980). This
effect actually occurs only rarely and only at extremely high doses (Tart,
1971). The Taoists must have been quite motivated, though, because the
cannabis visions supposedly revealed the path to immortality (Needham,
1974). The ancient physician Meng Shen wrote that visions required 100
consecutive days of consumption of the seeds (Li, 1974), suggesting that
perhaps many users failed to hallucinate on average doses. Even this rec-
ommendation seems misleading; the seeds contain little THC. Perhaps
they were covered with resin. Otherwise, eating pounds and pounds
would not produce a psychoactive effect.
Although intoxication was clearly the goal, this Taoist use of mari-
juana may qualify as religious rather than recreational. Cannabis use in
India developed a more formal connection to ritual and worship. The
plant may have spread to India from China, but legends there suggest
that the Hindu deity Shiva brought it down from the Himalayas (Abel,
1980). Devotees believe Shiva enjoyed cannabis; many offer it to the god
on special festival days. By 2000 B.C., the substance appeared in religious
texts. The holy book Atharvaveda mentions the plant with considerable
praise, emphasizing its ability to reduce tension. Despite the myriad an-
tianxiety medications available today, Westerners may label cannabis’s
anxiolytic effects as intoxicating rather than medicinal or religious. Nev-
ertheless, consumption in India had and continues to have a religious
Natives of India developed distinctions among cannabis products. Peo-
ple there use ganja, charas, and bhang. Ganja, the flowering tops, and
charas, the plant’s resin, are smoked in clay pipes. Natives eat bhang or
use it to make a cold, liquid refreshment. The drink is also called bhang
or thandai. Although recipes for the beverage vary, most contain can-
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 19

nabis, nuts, milk, sugar, poppy seeds, and at least a half dozen other
spices. Bhang consumption has important religious associations; many
people drink it at holy festivals. The sanctions against alcohol may have
increased bhang’s popularity in Hindu society. The drink is not particu-
larly potent; digesting the cannabis may decrease some of its effects. Not
all uses in India are purely sacramental. Hosts offer the beverage to guests
much the same as Westerners might offer alcohol (Abel, 1980).
Hashish probably developed later. This concentration of the cannabis
plant’s resin apparently reached Arab countries by the year 1000. Oth-
erwise, Ibn Wahshiyah, a physician of the era, would have had no need
for his concerned but inaccurate warnings that the drug could be fatal.
Despite evidence to the contrary, one legend of the invention of hashish
remains particularly popular. This story suggests that Haydar, the Persian
father of the Sufis, discovered hashish in 1155 (Rosenthal, 1971). Ibn
Wahshiyah’s earlier warnings belie the legend, but hashish is still called
“the wine of Haydar.”
Hashish’s concentration of resin contains a higher percentage of psy-
choactive THC than other cannabis preparations. It maintains its potency
longer than the plant, improving storage, shipment, and sales. The pro-
cedure for concentrating the resin has developed a few legends of its own.
Different tales describe naked slaves or nubile women running through
cannabis fields and scraping the resin that attaches to their bodies into
cakes of hash. As romantic as that process may sound, shaking the plants
and pressing the loosened resin together was probably simpler. Modern
recipes describe combining cannabis oil with powdered marijuana, which
is probably the contemporary technique of choice (Gold, 1989). This
new product likely facilitated the spread from India to the Arab coun-
tries. Hashish traveled better than the whole plant and may have brought
a higher price. This new location in the Arab world brought out one of
the most long-lived and pernicious legends about the drug’s link to vio-
Around the year 1090, Hasan-ibn-Sabah and his followers struck fear
in the hearts of many. Hasan’s devotees allegedly fulfilled his every wish,
including murdering his enemies. Their loyalty allegedly stemmed from
a belief that completing their missions guaranteed entry into paradise.
Hasan may have offered them a glimpse of this nirvana in an effort to
validate this claim of a blissful afterlife. One legend told that new initiates
were drugged, blindfolded, and taken to a lush garden filled with various
exotic amusements. After a few moments they were again drugged and
20 Understanding Marijuana

blindfolded and removed from the garden with the promise that they
would return at their deaths if they did Hasan’s bidding. This experience
apparently motivated the followers to act as instructed.
Over a hundred years later, Marco Polo returned from the Middle
East with this tale. Odd alterations eventually crept into the story. The
unnamed sedative became hashish. Later permutations suggested that the
devotees used the concentrated resin immediately prior to murdering
Hasan’s enemies. These tales led many to believe hashish intoxication
caused hostile acts. Some asserted that the name given these murderous
followers of Hasan even derived from the name of the drug; the killers,
who supposedly had consumed hashish, were called “assassins.” Although
“hashish” and “assassin” sound alike, other origins of the word may seem
more tenable. “Assassin” may have originally meant “follower of Hasan.”
It may have developed from “hassass”—an Arabic word that means “to
kill.” Despite these compelling alternative etymologies, the connection
between hashish and assassin stuck (Casto, 1970). The first head of the
Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, even mentioned the story
as evidence that cannabis incited crime (Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974).
Data do not support the connection. Although the belief that cannabis
causes violence remains (Schwartz, 1984), laboratory research reveals
that marijuana actually decreases aggression (Myerscough & Taylor,
From Marco Polo’s day through at least 1700, a compilation of stories
from the Middle East known as 1,001 Nights gained popularity. One
anecdote in the book depicts hashish intoxication. A man ingests the drug
at a public bath and fantasizes about a sexual encounter. Though he
realizes he is only experiencing the drug-induced reverie, he finds himself
tossed from the bathhouse for showing an obvious sign of arousal. Al-
though the tale is hardly happy, it may have increased interest in the
drug. The simultaneous experience of intoxication and awareness of that
intoxication would later appeal to Europeans in search of new ways to
enhance their creativity. The sexual nature of the story may have added
to cannabis’s reputation as an aphrodisiac, too.
Hashish’s path from the Arab countries to European artists was con-
voluted. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 exposed French troops to
the drug. Napoleon outlawed all cannabis use, but soldiers and scientists
returned to France with hashish. The book 1,001 Nights had grown quite
popular in all of Europe, and many knew its depiction of intoxication.
Some artists at the time hoped that the cannabis experience might inspire
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 21

new work. Perhaps the agony of writer’s block, or the inability to paint,
led artists to try any remedy. Few reports at the time mentioned addic-
tion to hashish, so many experimenters decided to try the drug.
The French physician Jacques Joseph Moreau remains the most-cited
connection between cannabis and the art community. Moreau first used
hashish while traveling through the Middle East in the 1830s. He hy-
pothesized that cannabis-induced sensations might model the hallucina-
tions and delusions common in psychotic individuals. He had hoped this
research might help treatment of the mentally ill (Moreau, 1845/1973).
Timothy Leary, among others, later offered comparable conjecture about
LSD and the hallucinogens (Leary, 1997). Moreau initially ingested hash-
ish himself. He found the intoxication paralleled some aspects of psy-
chosis. These results led Moreau to search for volunteers who might take
the drug while he observed from a less intoxicated, more objective state.
The outspoken hedonist and popular novelist Pierre Jules Theophile
Gautier assisted Moreau in this research. He not only participated him-
self, but he also recruited other members of France’s artistic community.
This crew of experimenters donned the name “The Hashish Club” and
met monthly in an old mansion in Paris.
Gautier published details of his first hashish experience in 1843 in his
Hashish Club. The manuscript contained the drama and flair typical of
French literature of the era. The night was stereotypically dark and
cloudy. Everything inside the old mansion appeared “gigantic,” “flamboy-
ant,” “dazzling,” and “mysterious” (Gautier, 1846/1966). Gautier ingested
dawamesc, a confection containing hashish, sugar, and spices. His hal-
lucinations were markedly more elaborate than those reported by others
who had used the drug. The writer may have exaggerated for effect. He
also may have received a large and potent dosage of the drug (Solomon,
1966). Evidence suggests some hashish of the day contained opium,
which may have altered Gautier’s experience dramatically (Bell, 1857).
Although much of the description sounds innocuous, other parts reveal
paranoid, frightened, and sad reactions. Moreau’s book based on this re-
search appeared in 1846 and received an honorable mention in a scientific
competition sponsored by the French Academy of Science (Abel, 1980).
The Hashish Club continued to meet, bringing Baudelaire, Balzac,
Dumas, and Flaubert into its ranks. The impact of the drug on their
creativity remains unknown. Modern studies have produced mixed re-
sults for marijuana’s impact on originality (Chait & Pierri, 1992). A cou-
ple of members of the club wrote about the drug itself. Baudelaire pub-
22 Understanding Marijuana

lished On the Artificial Ideal, a monograph about cannabis, in 1858. The

book described the elaborate changes in thoughts and sensations that
arise from the drug. He clearly mentioned both euphoric and dysphoric
reactions, including some paranoid, terrifying moments typical of ex-
treme dosages. He emphasized the importance of the setting in deter-
mining the drug’s effects. This work also depicts synaesthesia, a confusion
of one sense for another. For example, Baudelaire described the sound
of color and the color of sound. This synaesthesia experience is more
common with hallucinogen intoxication. He added a translation of De
Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater and republished the work as
The Artificial Paradises in 1860 (Solomon, 1966). His unfavorable opin-
ion of these drugs appears in his subsequent book on hashish and opium
entitled The Flowers of Evil.
Other famous members of the Hashish Club apparently devoted less
time to the drug than Baudelaire or Gautier. They certainly published
less on the topic. Balzac apparently only observed at the meetings. He
sampled the drug rarely and wrote little about it, except for a letter that
describes some mild effects (Balzac, 1900). Alexander Dumas also re-
portedly never used the drug excessively. He has no works devoted to
cannabis, but his Count of Monte Cristo contains a passage remarkably
reminiscent of the story of Hasan’s assassins. Flaubert also supposedly
only observed at the club. (One wonders who did ingest the drug while
all of these famous folks watched.) None of his works focus directly on
cannabis, either. At his death in 1880, he left notes for the novel La
Spirale, which describes a man’s degeneration from hashish use (Abel,
Cannabis spread across the English Channel to Britain in the 1800s,
but it seemed to cause little commotion. In 1855, a member of Parlia-
ment confessed to using the drug during a trip outside the country (Ur-
quhart, 1855). Later articles in English journals and magazines argued
against some of the drug’s purported negative consequences. The English
writer Laird-Clowes was particularly outspoken against the idea that can-
nabis caused violence, suggesting that the effect was inconceivable
(Laird-Clowes, 1877). English artists followed the French in consuming
hashish for inspiration. Both William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde may
have used the drug, though both preferred other intoxicants. However,
neither focused large works on cannabis the way Baudelaire or Gautier
had (Abel, 1980).
Eventually, cannabis the intoxicant reached the United States. The
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 23

first mention of the drug by an American author appears in a poem by

John Greenleaf Whittier in 1854 (Whittier, 1854/1904). Bayard Taylor,
a popular American writer of the time, discusses his own use of hashish
in two travel books published in the mid-1850s (Taylor, 1854, 1855).
Although his initial experience with the drug in Egypt sounds innocuous,
a subsequent ingestion of a large dose appears quite aversive. Taylor’s
tales inspired the young American Fitz Hugh Ludlow to experiment with
the drug and anonymously publish The Hasheesh Eater in 1857 (Ludlow,
1857). After a couple of ingestions of low doses produced no effect,
Ludlow ate quite a bit of the drug and had a negative reaction. Despite
the adverse effects, Ludlow took the drug again within a couple of weeks.
He described the synaesthesia that Baudelaire reported, as well as laugh-
ter, dry mouth, and some uncomfortable, anxious feelings. Ludlow used
the drug repeatedly, reporting some genuine difficulty maintaining ab-
stinence. Eventually, with a doctor’s help, Ludlow abandoned all use. His
book remains one of the most popular American texts on cannabis from
this era (Abel, 1980). Ludlow’s book may have inspired a few other
Americans to experiment with the drug, but use was not high in the late
1800s. Opium, alcohol, and cocaine were more popular. All of these
drugs would eventually become illegal in the years to come.
Laws prohibiting opium appeared by the end of the century, perhaps
as a reflection of racist sentiment against Asians. Exaggerated reports of
cocaine’s effects, particularly in people of African or Caribbean descent,
contributed to legislation against this drug. Comparable discrimination
against Mexican and African immigrants may have contributed to later
cannabis prohibition (Musto, 1999). Few people in the United States
actually used marijuana at the turn of the twentieth century, but those
who did were not members of mainstream, Protestant, Caucasian society.
Initial attempts to restrict cannabis with a federal mandate in 1911 failed.
Many local governments, particularly in areas with extensive immigra-
tion, passed their own antimarijuana laws. Newspaper accounts of the
day suggested that few readers had any familiarity with the drug. The
Eighteenth Amendment, outlawing liquor, went into effect in 1920. Al-
though alcohol prohibition decreased drinking, it increased marijuana
consumption. People drank more coffee after liquor was outlawed, too
(Brecher, 1972). In the late 1800s in India, a situation opposite to Amer-
ica’s alcohol prohibition occurred. British taxes levied in India made
forms of marijuana so expensive that many people turned to alcohol
consumption (Abel, 1980).
24 Understanding Marijuana

After prohibition was repealed in 1933, marijuana became the target

of government control. Sensationalistic stories linked violent acts to can-
nabis consumption. The reports often ignored tenable alternative expla-
nations of the aggression, like alcohol consumption or mental illness.
Many of the most outlandish stories appeared in newspapers published
by William Randolph Hearst. Hearst purportedly had financial interests
in the lumber and paper industries. He may have sought to eliminate
competition from hemp (Herer, 1999). Harry Anslinger took these news-
paper tales to Congress to argue for the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. The
act did not make the drug illegal, but it did put high taxes on it. Anslinger
proposed harsh sentences for drug violations and worked hard to have
them increased with the 1951 Boggs Act. Research had already under-
mined Anslinger’s contentions that cannabis caused violence, so the
Boggs Act included extreme penalties for possession of the drug because
people at the time believed it led to heroin addiction. (Marijuana as a
gateway to harder drugs is discussed in chapter 3.)
Marijuana use was still quite limited in the 1950s, but as the 1960s
progressed, cannabis’s popularity increased dramatically. The substance
was no longer limited to minority users; college students of all ethnicities
throughout the country reported using the drug. By the end of the 1960s,
a commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson found little evi-
dence for the drug leading to heroin addiction or violence. Many citizens
hoped for a repeal of marijuana prohibition, with the formation of the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in
1970. President Richard Nixon declined to take any steps toward legal-
ization, despite recommendations from a fact-finding commission. Some
local areas minimized penalties for possession in the 1970s, but many of
these laws were repealed as drug attitudes altered during the administra-
tions of Ronald Reagan.
Depictions of cannabis intoxication in the arts remained. Allen Gins-
berg, the Beat poet, wrote an essay in favor of legalization during an
experience of intoxication (Ginsberg, 1966). Although the grammar re-
mains unconventional, the essay shows considerable fervor for the topic.
Comedians, comic strips, and entertainers make reference to the drug.
Television shows frequently allude to cannabis by depicting teens lighting
incense and speaking in jocular non sequiturs. Although the drug has
been illegal for over 60 years, almost 5,000 years of use appears to con-
tinue. In 1997 and again in 1999, approximately one-third of all Amer-
icans admitted to use of cannabis at least once in their lifetime (Depart-
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 25

ment of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 1998; Substance Abuse

and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2000). The
number of future users will undoubtedly vary with the artistic, religious,
legal, and economic factors that contributed to consumption in the past.
Unfortunately, many people have no knowledge of the causes, conse-
quences, and correlates of use. The remaining chapters of this book
should help provide this information.


Industrial, medical, and recreational uses of marijuana increased its fame

throughout the world. The many uses of the cannabis plant have a long
history, beginning in 8000 B.C. when Taiwanese artists used fibers from
the stem to decorate clay pots. Ancients eventually turned the fibers to
rope and later weaved them into hemp fabric. By 100 B.C., the Chinese
had used cannabis to make paper. These products spread across the an-
cient world. By 850 A.D., the Vikings had dragged the ropes with them
to Iceland. In 1000, hemp ropes helped the Italian navy dominate the
seas. The hemp crop was so important that British farmers were com-
manded to grow cannabis or pay fines. Kings ordered the American col-
onies to export the crop, but they used it to make rope and fabric of
their own. People also used the seeds and their oil in various foods, de-
veloping nutritious recipes that remain popular today. Cotton and syn-
thetic fibers have replaced some of these ropes and fabrics, but a new
movement supports industrial hemp as a more ecological alternative to
these products. Contemporary merchants still sell shirts, shoes, and even
hammocks made of hemp. The oil of the seed also appears in modern
shampoos, soaps, and salves.
Medicinal marijuana first appeared in 2737 B.C. when the Chinese
Emperor Shen Neng prescribed it for many ailments. These treatments
grew more popular in all of Asia and down the coast of Africa. Religious
uses developed in certain sects of Hinduism in India. By the 1500s, some
Europeans had mentioned the plant’s medicinal use. In the 1842, Irish
physician William O’Shaughnessy published medical experiments that he
conducted in India. Tinctures of cannabis appeared in pharmacies
throughout the world. Physicians prescribed the drug for everything from
earache to nausea. Legislation against cannabis forced the medical com-
munity to withdraw it as a treatment by the 1940s. Yet the movement
26 Understanding Marijuana

for medical marijuana continues. Studies performed in the 1970s re-

vealed a new potential application of the drug in the treatment of glau-
coma. Research on smoked marijuana, THC, and other cannabinoids,
though often hindered by bureaucratic difficulties, continues to reveal
potential pharmaceutical applications.
The recreational use of cannabis likely followed its early prescription
for physical ailments. The intoxicating effects of the plant may have con-
tributed to the ancient Scythian practice of huffing the smoke during
funerals, as first reported in 450 B.C. By 100 A.D., the Chinese Taoists
used the drug to induce visions. The intoxicant inspired stories of sexual
arousal, like the one in 1,001 Nights, which appeared by 1200 A.D. News
of the drug’s psychoactive properties spread throughout Europe. Napo-
leon’s soldiers brought hashish to France from Egypt in 1798. Moreau,
the French physician, supplied the drug to many French artists and writ-
ers in the middle of the 1840s. Literary work about hashish contributed
to experiments in the United States, where Fitz Hugh Ludlow published
a tale of his intoxication in 1857. Use did not spread in America until
after the turn of the century. By the 1930s, the drug was illegal in every
state. Despite this legislation, use increased in the 1960s and 1970s. Large
organizations designed to alter legislation formed. Recreational use con-
tinues, with approximately one-third of Americans trying the drug at
some time. The future of this controversial fiber, medicine, and intoxi-
cant will depend on a complex interaction of its biological, psychological,
and societal effects.

Appendix: Timeline for Highlights in the History of Cannabis

8000 B.C.: Hemp fiber first appears in Taiwan.

2737 B.C.: Emperor Shen Neng of China first prescribes medicinal mar-
2000 B.C.–1400 B.C.: Indian holy book Atharvaveda mentions mari-
juana’s antianxiety effects.
600 B.C.: Hemp rope appears in southern Russia.
450 B.C.: Herodotus’s Histories mention hemp fabrics and Scythian use
of cannabis as an intoxicant.
200 B.C.: Hemp rope appears in Greece. Chinese Book of Rites men-
tions hemp fabric.
Highlights in the History of Cannabis 27

100 B.C.: First evidence of hemp paper, invented in China (see 105
23–79 A.D.: Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History mentions hemp rope
and marijuana’s analgesic effects.
47–127: Plutarch mentions Thracians using cannabis as an intoxicant.
70: Dioscorides, a physician in Nero’s army, lists medical marijuana in
his pharmacopoeia.
100: Imported hemp rope first appears in England.
105: Legends suggest Ts’ai Lun invents hemp paper in China at this
time (see 100 B.C.).
130–200: Greek physician Galen prescribes marijuana medicinally.
200: First pharmacopoeia of the East lists medical marijuana. Chinese
surgeon Hua T’o uses marijuana as an anesthetic.
300: Young woman in Jerusalem receives medical marijuana during
570: French queen Arnegunde is buried with hemp cloth.
850: Vikings take hemp rope and seeds to Iceland.
900: Arabs learn techniques for making hemp paper.
1000: Hemp ropes appear on Italian ships. Arabic physician Ibn Wah-
shiyah’s On Poisons warns of marijuana’s potential dangers.
1090: Hasan-ibn-Sabah recruits assassins with hashish.
1155: Haydar allegedly invents hashish.
1200: 1,001 Nights, an Arabian collection of tales, describes hashish’s
intoxicating properties.
1300: Ethiopian pipes containing marijuana suggest drug has spread
from Egypt to the rest of Africa.
1532: French physician Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel mentions
marijuana’s medicinal effects.
1533: King Henry VIII fines farmers who do not raise hemp.
1563: Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta reports marijuana’s medici-
nal effects.
1578: China’s Li Shih-Chen writes of antibiotic and antiemetic effects
of marijuana.
1600: England imports hemp from Russia.
1616: Jamestown colonists grow hemp.
1621: Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy suggests marijuana may treat de-
1753: Linnaeus classifies Cannabis sativa.
28 Understanding Marijuana

1764: Medical marijuana appears in The New England Dispensatory.

1776: Kentucky begins growing hemp.
1783: Lamarck classifies the plant Cannabis Indica.
1794: Medical marijuana appears in The Edinburgh New Dispensary.
1798: Napoleon’s soldiers learn of cannabis and hashish in Egypt.
1842: Irish physician O’Shaughnessy publishes cannabis research in En-
glish medical journals.
1843: French author Gautier publishes The Hashish Club.
1846: French physician Moreau publishes Hashish and Mental Illness.
1850: Cannabis added to The U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
1854: Whittier writes first American work to mention cannabis as in-
1857: American writer Ludlow publishes The Hasheesh Eater.
1858: French poet Baudelaire publishes On the Artificial Ideal.
1890: Sir J. R. Reynolds, chief physician to Queen Victoria, prescribes
medical marijuana.
1924: Russian botanists classify Cannabis ruderalis.
1937: Marijuana Tax Act passes, requiring special fees for prescriptions
of the drug.
1941: Cannabis removed from U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
1951: Boggs Act increases drug penalties.
1960: Czech researchers confirm antibiotic and analgesic effects of can-
1970: National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
(NORML) forms.
1971: First evidence suggesting marijuana may help glaucoma appears.
1975: Nabilone, a cannabinoid-based medication, appears.
1985: FDA approves dronabinol, a synthetic THC, for cancer patients.
1992: FDA approves dronabinol for AIDS-wasting syndrome.
1999: Hawaii and North Dakota attempt to legalize hemp farming.
DEA reclassifies dronabinol as a Schedule III drug, making the medi-
cation easier to prescribe.
2000: Legalization initiative in Alaska fails.
2001: Canada adopts federal laws in support of medical marijuana.
Cannabis Use and Misuse

This chapter describes the use and misuse of cannabis. Estimating the
number of marijuana smokers proves difficult. Many people show an
understandable reluctance to confess to illegal behavior. This reluctance
may also bias estimates of the amount of cannabis consumed. Marijuana
lacks the standard dosage common to many other drugs, such as a pack
of cigarettes or a shot of whiskey. In addition, people can misremember,
exaggerate, or minimize their use. Many different terms have developed
to describe drug problems. Definitions of various kinds of misuse prove
troublesome. The term “addiction” has no universal meaning. “Depen-
dence” has a fairly specific meaning separate from abuse, but two people
with marijuana dependence need not share a single symptom. “Abuse”
has a formal definition that lacks precision. For example, two smokers
who qualify for abuse may not share any of the same problems. Some
people define any use of an illegal drug as abuse. Perhaps the best ap-
proach to defining misuse relies on cataloging individual problems that
stem from the drug. This approach may provide the most specific infor-
mation for treatment. Each of these issues appears in detail below.

Estimating Cannabis Use

Between 200 and 300 million people worldwide report smoking mari-
juana (Woody & MacFadden, 1995). Cannabis remains the most widely
consumed illicit drug in Canada (Russell, Newman, & Bland, 1994), as

30 Understanding Marijuana

well as the United States. In 1999, approximately one-third of U.S. adults

(76 million) reported smoking marijuana at least once. About 9% of the
U.S. population reported smoking marijuana in the previous year; 5%
had used in the previous month (SAMHSA, 2000). This 1999 survey
did not assess weekly users, but in 1996, approximately 3% of Americans
had used the drug on more than 51 days in the previous year (DHHS,
1998). More men report using the drug than women. Approximately
6.5% of the females and 10.5% of the males age 12 and over reported
smoking marijuana in the previous year (Greenfield & O’Leary, 1999).
The popularity of the drug also varies with age. An alarming 19% of
Americans age 12–17 had already tried marijuana. Young adults age 18–
25 often have the highest percentage of users. In 1999, 52% of the people
in this age group had tried the drug at least once, and 17% had smoked
in the last month. Fewer people above age 25 smoke cannabis, with rates
approaching 40% for lifetime use (SAMHSA, 2000). Rates of use also
change in different eras. From 1972 until 1979, the percentage of users
in the United States increased steadily each year. At the peak in 1979,
68% of the people age 18–25 reported using the drug at least once. Rates
have decreased since then. Only 51% of young adults had tried the drug
in 1991 and only 44% in 1996 (NIDA, 1991; SAMHSA, 1997). Cur-
rently, most people do not use the drug or do not use it often. In the
United States in 1999, nonusers outnumbered users in all age groups.
The percentage of people who use weekly (less than 3%) or monthly
(5%) appears relatively small.
These estimates require cautious interpretation. Although researchers
gather data carefully, these surveys invariably rely on self-reports. These
numbers may not represent the true number of marijuana smokers. In-
stead, they depict the percentage of people who are willing to admit to
using the drug. Although even presidential candidates will acknowledge
smoking marijuana, people often lie about illegal or socially undesirable
behaviors (LaBrie & Earleywine, 2000; Wimbush & Dalton, 1997). The
bias in reporting may stem from the legal and social sanctions associated
with drug use. The amount of bias may differ depending on the age of
the respondent and the era of the response. For many reasons, teenagers
in the 1970s might have claimed to have used cannabis even when they
had not. Peer pressure and general attitudes about marijuana at the time
may have contributed to overreporting.
For other reasons, parents in the 1990s might have claimed they never
used the drug when they actually had. They may worry that their chil-
Cannabis Use and Misuse 31

dren will use the drug, which may contribute to underreporting their
own use. These sorts of biases make estimates inaccurate. Everyday for-
getfulness can decrease the validity of reports, too. For example, infre-
quent users may not recall correctly if they used the drug in the previous
month. Thus, these estimates can only provide a general feel for the
number of marijuana smokers over the years. Even urine screens or hair
tests could not reveal exactly how many people ever used the drug be-
cause these procedures cannot assess consumption in the distant past.
Although assessments of the number of users are difficult, estimates
of the amount used prove even more cumbersome. Legal drugs like al-
cohol, caffeine, and nicotine have standard units for consumption. A shot
of whiskey, cup of coffee, and pack of cigarettes may not vary dramati-
cally. In contrast, no standards exist for amounts of marijuana. Pipe bowls
and joints range considerably in size. Different plants also show a wide
range of potency. The subjective experience achieved with any amount
may vary dramatically, too (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).
One approach to measuring the amount of consumption relies on es-
timates of the total amount of marijuana smoked annually. The amount
of cannabis consumed per year in the United States is obviously difficult
to guess. The Drug Enforcement Agency reports seizing 2,035 metric
tons of marijuana, which they estimated as 10 to 15% of the total traffic.
A metric ton is roughly 2,200 pounds, so marijuana consumption in a
year would be roughly 4,477,000 pounds. If 9% of Americans use can-
nabis each year, they would smoke roughly 3 ounces per year per person.
Obviously, the variation among smokers would remain high, with some
smoking markedly more and some smoking markedly less than 3 ounces
in a year.
Another approach to estimating amounts of cannabis consumption
works backward from the number of users. Assume that each user
smokes 1 gram of marijuana per occasion. Focusing only on daily users,
these numbers suggest Americans consume approximately 1,476 metric
tons of marijuana, roughly 3.25 million pounds per year. This weight
translates to only 2 ounces per user per year (How Much Marijuana?,
1995). These rough averages are unlikely to profile any individual user;
some people use more often and in greater amounts than others. Nev-
ertheless, this estimate of 2 to 3 ounces per year per user provides a
rough approximation to the truth.
These guesses at the number of users and the amounts they consume
provide some sense of the popularity of the drug. Estimating the extent
32 Understanding Marijuana

of marijuana problems, however, requires additional information. Several

different approaches to the misuse of drugs have developed. Distinctions
among these forms of misuse have created heated debates and misun-
derstandings. Generally, the definitions all focus on negative conse-
quences rather than the amount consumed or the frequency of smoking.
The choice of definitions for misuse has important implications. One
view of misuse may make marijuana problems appear more common
than another. In addition, the different conceptualizations of marijuana
problems may lead to different approaches to interventions.
For example, stating that a drug creates a horrid addiction might sug-
gest that the best treatment would require abstinence. This approach is
typical of attitudes about heroin. In contrast, thinking of a drug as cre-
ating a mild nuisance might imply that decreasing use could alleviate the
problems, but complete abstinence may not be necessary. People expe-
riencing problems with caffeine often adopt this approach. Each idea of
misuse has its own associated set of debates. Popular definitions of misuse
include addiction, dependence, abuse, and problems. Each of these ap-
pears in detail below.

Definitions of Misuse

Marijuana addiction proves difficult to define. Some researchers claim

that marijuana is not particularly addictive. Experts assert that cannabis’s
addictive power parallels caffeine’s (Franklin, 1990; Hilts, 1994). Hilts
asked two prominent drug researchers to rank features of six common
drugs: nicotine, caffeine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and marijuana. Both
experts ranked marijuana last in its ability to produce withdrawal, tol-
erance, and dependence. Another study had experts rank 18 drugs on
how easily they “hook” people and how difficult they are to quit. Mari-
juana ranked 14th, behind the legal drugs nicotine (ranked first), alcohol
(ranked 8th), and caffeine (ranked 12th). Only hallucinogens (MDMA,
mushrooms, LSD, and mescaline) ranked lower than marijuana (Franklin,
These results only reflect expert opinions, but other evidence suggests
that marijuana is not particularly addictive. For example, only a fraction
of those who try marijuana eventually use it regularly. Nevertheless,
some users still develop troubles related to the drug, and many request
Cannabis Use and Misuse 33

assistance in limiting their consumption (Roffman et al., 1993). In the

face of these problems, the low ratings of addictive propensity seem con-
fusing and may arise from diverse meanings for the word addiction.
The term “addiction” developed to describe the repetition of a habit.
Addiction initially did not necessarily involve drugs. Its Latin root, “ad-
dictus,” means “state, proclaim, or bind.” The origin suggests an obvious,
stated connection between addicted people and their actions. The word
connotes surrender and implies that an activity or substance has bound
the person (Lenson, 1995). Addiction was usually treated as a bad habit,
similar to picking one’s nose compulsively. At the beginning of the twen-
tieth century, at least in the United States, the term changed from a
description of actions to a medical condition. This distinction may seem
subtle, but converting a bad habit into a physiological disorder brings it
into the domain of medical intervention. This medical approach implies
that addiction is not just a troublesome activity; it is a personal condition.
Physicians have transformed many troubles into biological illnesses, with
many repercussions. This tendency to reframe personal difficulties as
physiological deficits may give medical communities more power and
money (Foucault, 1973; Szasz, 1961). The implication that drug prob-
lems require a biological intervention may increase the sales of medicines
or hospital treatments.
Some medical texts support the term “addiction” as the proper ex-
pression for drug problems. This definition emphasizes preoccupation
with the substance, compulsive use, and frequent relapses. People who
spend considerable time and effort trying to obtain the drug appear pre-
occupied. Those who drive long distances or wait many hours to meet a
connection might qualify. Those who frequently reminisce about previ-
ous intoxication or fantasize about future consumption also might qualify
as preoccupied. Circles of friends who can discuss nothing but their cur-
rent, previous, or future drug use obviously miss out on quality relation-
ships because of a preoccupation with the drug.
Compulsive use describes the subjective sense that one is forced to
consume the drug. It need not mean intoxication at every moment. Com-
pulsive use also can include consistent consumption under identical cir-
cumstances, such as smoking marijuana at the same time each evening.
People who cannot watch a movie or have sex without cannabis might
qualify as compulsive users. Repeated use despite attempts to stop also
typifies this definition of addiction. Proponents of this approach to defin-
ing problems emphasize loss of control. Loss of control implies that the
34 Understanding Marijuana

initial use of the substance impairs the ability to stop. A tacit assumption
in some medical settings suggests that these symptoms arise from a bio-
logical process, an interaction of a foreign chemical with internal physi-
ology (Miller, Gold, & Smith, 1997). This approach may have inspired
the disease model of addiction.

THE DISEASE MODEL OF ADDICTION The disease model generates con-

siderable emotion in many who investigate, treat, or experience drug
problems. The controversy surrounding the model reflects the history of
human reactions to personal difficulties. That history reveals that the
disease model shows genuine progress over previous ideas about drug
problems. Ancients often attributed personal troubles to evil spirits, as
some people do today. Their treatments echoed this idea. For example,
some who believed demons caused problems performed exorcisms. Some
fans of the evil spirits model used a procedure called trephining. They
drilled holes in the heads of those who suffered in order to release the
dastardly devils within. The obvious drawbacks of this approach inspired
the moral model of addiction.
A moral model of problems succeeded the idea of evil spirits in some
areas. The moral model attributed troubles to ignoble thoughts, actions,
or character. Adherents of this model provided treatments that included
religious education and church attendance. This approach may not have
appealed to all problem drug users, but it certainly beat trephining. Some
adherents to the moral model suggested that those with drug problems
were weak-willed, deficient, or sinful. The moral approach moved the
initial source of the disorder. The evil spirits model posited that the prob-
lems arose from outside the individual. In contrast, the moral model
implied that the source of the problems was inside the individual.
The disease model provided advantages over the moral model by as-
serting that drug problems served as symptoms of an illness. This illness
led people, through no fault of their own, to the problematic consump-
tion of substances. The disease model helped minimize blaming addicts
for symptoms beyond their control. Few people fault others for contract-
ing botulism or influenza. No one tells a diabetic to “snap out of it,” or
“use willpower” to combat symptoms. Yet individuals with drug prob-
lems may hear these expressions repeatedly. The disease model suggests
that condemnation and commands waste effort that could be better spent
on respectful therapy. This model underlies one of the most popular
approaches to substance abuse treatment, the twelve-step program,
Cannabis Use and Misuse 35

which appears in more detail in chapter 11. Despite the success of these
programs, many researchers prefer an alternative model.
Critics of the disease model certainly support respectful treatment.
Nevertheless, they also suggest that viewing drug problems as a disease
can have drawbacks. In an effort to minimize blaming people for addic-
tive behavior, proponents of the disease model may have created another
set of problems. The definition of disease has grown slippery. Addiction
may not qualify because it does not parallel other illnesses. No bacteria
or viruses lead to substance abuse the way they create anthrax or AIDS.
Genes do not cause addiction in the direct way they produce Down’s
syndrome or hemophilia. The symptoms of cancer do not flare up in
certain environments the way that craving for liquor may increase in a
bar. Despite these facts, some advocates of the disease model treat ad-
diction as a purely biological phenomenon. This emphasis on biology can
exclude important economic, societal, and psychological contributors
(Peele, 1998).
The opinion that drug problems reflect a medical disorder has certain
drawbacks. The idea ignores social aspects of addiction, creates a depen-
dence on medical treatments, and may lead to higher rates of relapse.
Viewing addiction as a purely biological phenomenon minimizes estab-
lished links between social class and drug problems (e.g., Armor, Polich,
& Stambul, 1978; Miller & Miller, 1997). This approach may blind peo-
ple to the potential for limiting drug problems through social change. A
purely biological approach may also lead people to rely inappropriately
on medications rather than psychological treatment. Changing personal
behavior is often difficult. Changing society can prove even tougher. Pre-
scribing medication for a disease is often easier. The disease model also
may contribute to higher rates of relapse because of a central idea about
loss of control. A belief in this symptom, which describes an inability to
use a drug in small amounts without starting a binge, may actually in-
crease relapse rates (Marlatt, Demming, & Reid, 1973; Peele, 1998).
Increases in the risk of relapse may serve as a prime example of a
drawback associated with the disease model. Problem users frequently
report that initial consumption of a drug invariably leads to using mark-
edly more than they ever intended. Many assumed that a chemical pro-
cess associated with the experience of intoxication impaired their ability
to stop consumption. This loss of control became synonymous with ad-
dictive disease. Yet alcoholics surreptitiously given alcohol do not show
signs of uncontrolled drinking. In contrast, alcoholics who believe they
36 Understanding Marijuana

have consumed alcohol after drinking a placebo do show less control over
their drinking (Marlatt et al., 1973). These results suggest that what peo-
ple think is more important than what they consume. The belief that
one has consumed alcohol can lead to a bigger binge than actually drink-
ing alcohol without knowing it.
No one has performed a study like this one with cannabis users. Nev-
ertheless, the way abstinent people think about using a little marijuana
determines if they will go on to use a lot. In one relevant study, marijuana
users in treatment reported about their relapses. Some used on a single
occasion, considered it a “slip,” and returned to abstinence quickly. Oth-
ers considered the single use a sign of weak will or disease and ended up
consuming markedly more (Stephens, Curtin, Simpson, & Roffman,
1994). These data suggest that this sort of loss of control likely arises
from a psychological rather than a biological process. Many researchers
view these data as evidence against the disease model.
Other definitions of both addiction and disease have added to the
controversy. Peele (1998) emphasizes tolerance, withdrawal, and craving
as essential to addiction. His work returns to the old definition of addic-
tion, which can include actions that do not require chemicals. He extends
the concept beyond drugs to nearly every behavior imaginable, including
love (Peele, 1975). Yet he remains one of the most outspoken critics of
the disease model. Tolerance, withdrawal, and craving all vary with fea-
tures of the environment, suggesting that more than biology contributes
to addictive behavior. Peele (1998) asserts that this evidence helps dis-
credit the disease model. Other researchers argue that Peele misunder-
stands addiction (Wallace, 1990). The word may have so many different
uses that it has lost its meaning. Thus, other terms have developed to
describe trouble with drugs.


addiction quite broadly and disparately, some mental health professionals
prefer the terms “dependence” and “abuse.” Others see these words as
pejorative and judgmental compared to “addiction” (Miller, Gold, &
Smith, 1997). Oddly enough, the World Health Organization (WHO)
proposed the word “dependence” to avoid the derogatory aspects of the
word “addiction” (Eddy, Halbach, Isbell, & Seevers, 1965). Addiction
may imply a purely physical, biological process that might neglect psy-
chological contributors to drug problems (Goldberg, 1997). Other terms
Cannabis Use and Misuse 37

have developed to focus on the observable behavior without hypothesiz-

ing an internal process or disease.
Focusing on observable behavior has been a recurring theme for the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) developed by the American Psy-
chiatric Association. This book attempts to define all psychiatric illnesses.
Dependence and abuse appear in this work; addiction does not. Their
definitions have gone through many revisions and probably will continue
to do so. The first version of the manual (the DSM-I ) appeared in 1952
(American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1952); it is now in its fourth
edition. Originally, the opinions of many mental health professionals con-
tributed to the definition of any disorder. Gradually, researchers at-
tempted to clarify the diagnoses based on science rather than opinion.
Early versions of the dependence diagnosis simply required “evidence of
habitual use or a clear sense of need for the drug” (APA, 1968). This
definition proved too subjective to diagnose reliably. Current definitions
focus on a maladaptive pattern of use that leads to impairment or distress.
Other symptoms are required for the diagnoses, as described below.


The DSM-IV defines drug dependence as a collection of any three of

seven symptoms. All must create meaningful distress and occur within
the same year. The diagnosis requires a certain amount of judgment on
the clinician’s part, but the symptoms tend to be obvious. Each symptom
reflects the idea that a person requires the drug to function and makes
maladaptive sacrifices to use it. The current diagnosis focuses on conse-
quences, not the amount or frequency of consumption. In contrast, ear-
lier versions of the DSM once employed the frequency of intoxication as
a symptom. For example, the diagnosis of a disorder known as “habitual
excessive drinking” required intoxication 12 times per year (APA, 1968).
This approach proved inexact and failed to relate to the magnitude of
difficulties. Perhaps many problem drinkers purposely got drunk only 11
times a year to avoid this label. Thus, current diagnoses of drug depen-
dence focus on negative consequences. They include tolerance and with-
drawal, which were once considered the hallmarks of dependence. The
additional symptoms are use that exceeds initial intention, persistent de-
sire for the drug or failed attempts to decrease consumption, loss of time
related to use, reduced activities because of consumption, and continued
use despite problems.
38 Understanding Marijuana

Tolerance is one of the hallmarks of physiological dependence. It oc-

curs when repeated use of the same dose no longer produces as dramatic
an effect. This symptom can indicate extensive use and may motivate
continued consumption. People do not grow tolerant to a drug but to its
effects. After repeated use, some of the effects of a drug may decrease
while others may not. Tolerance to the desired effects of marijuana may
encourage people to smoke more. Many people report smoking cannabis
to enhance their moods (Simons, Correia, Carey, & Borsari, 1998). Yet
tolerance develops to the mood-enhancing effect of THC (Haney, Ward,
Comer, Foltin, & Fischman, 1999a). This tolerance may lead people to
smoke more to achieve the same emotional reactions. The increased use
may coincide with a greater chance for problems. Ironically, tolerance to
negative effects may also encourage more consumption. For example,
smoking marijuana creates dry mouth, but this effect diminishes with use
(Weller & Halikas 1982). This negative effect may have inhibited use
initially. People might stop smoking if their mouths became too dry. But
once tolerance develops, their mouths do not grow as dry and they may
smoke more. Thus, tolerance to marijuana’s effects may lead to increased
consumption and serves as a symptom of dependence.
The second symptom of dependence is withdrawal. Withdrawal refers
to discomfort associated with the absence of the drug. Many drugs pro-
duce withdrawal, including the most common ones: caffeine, nicotine,
and alcohol. The most notorious drug withdrawal may come from heroin.
This opiate has a reputation for producing dramatic withdrawal symp-
toms, including notorious leg twitches that may have inspired the ex-
pression “kicking junk.” No two people experience withdrawal in the
same way. Many assert that marijuana does not produce any withdrawal
at all. It certainly does not create the dramatic symptoms characteristic
of alcohol or heroin, and many users do not experience any problems
after discontinuing use (Schuckit et al., 1999). Nevertheless, people given
synthetic THC for a few consecutive days report negative moods and
disturbed sleep after they stop taking the drug (Haney et al., 1999a).
People who smoke marijuana a few days in a row report more anxiety
without the drug (Haney, Ward, Comer, Foltin, & Fischman, 1999b).
Thus, marijuana can lead to withdrawal and therefore dependence.
The lack of flagrant, obvious cannabis withdrawal symptoms inspired
the American Psychiatric Association to distinguish between types of de-
pendence. Early versions of the diagnosis of dependence specifically
noted that marijuana might cause problems in individuals who do not
Cannabis Use and Misuse 39

experience withdrawal (APA, 1968). The DSM-IV distinguishes between

dependence with and without a physiological component. If tolerance or
withdrawal appear among the three required symptoms, a diagnosis of
physiological dependence is appropriate. Nevertheless, even without tol-
erance or withdrawal, individuals may receive a diagnosis of substance
dependence without a physiological component. If they show three other
symptoms, they will still receive the diagnosis. This change in procedure
has made the diagnosis of marijuana dependence potentially more com-
A third symptom of dependence involves use that exceeds initial in-
tention. This symptom suggests that individuals may plan to consume a
certain amount of a drug, but once intoxication begins, they use markedly
more. Use that exceeds intention was once known as loss of control.
Many people misinterpreted the idea of loss of control, suggesting it
meant an unstoppable compulsion to use all of the drug available. People
who got high and still had marijuana in the house the next morning
might have claimed that they did not show loss of control. Use that
exceeds intention specifically does not imply this dramatic, unconscious
consumption. This symptom simply suggests that dependent users may
have trouble smoking a small amount if they intend to. Ironically, people
who never intend to smoke a small amount may not get the opportunity
to qualify for this symptom.
The fourth symptom of dependence is failed attempts to decrease use
or a constant desire for the drug. An inability to reduce marijuana con-
sumption despite a wish to do so certainly suggests that the drug has
altered behavior meaningfully. Yet someone with no motivation to quit
would likely never qualify for a failed attempt. Thus, people who have
not attempted to quit may still qualify for this symptom if they show a
persistent, continuous craving for the drug. An inability to stop or a con-
stant desire suggests dependence.
A fifth symptom of dependence involves loss of time related to use.
The time lost can be devoted to experiencing intoxication, recovering
from it, or seeking drugs. Because marijuana is illegal, users may spend
considerable time in search of it. People addicted to caffeine, nicotine,
or alcohol may prove less likely to lose time in search of their drug of
choice. The number of hours required to qualify for a meaningful loss of
time is unclear, making this symptom seem subjective. Clear-cut cases
include anyone whose day is devoted to finding drugs, getting high, and
recovering. Anyone who spends a few hours each day on these activities
40 Understanding Marijuana

would also qualify. In contrast, individuals who smoke marijuana an hour

before bed each night might argue that they have lost little time and
should not qualify for this symptom. The subjective assessment of a
meaningful amount of time may contribute to problems with the diag-
nosis of dependence.
The sixth symptom of dependence is reduced activities because of
drug use. This symptom focuses on work, relationships, and leisure. The
presence of this symptom suggests that the drug has taken over so much
of daily life that the user would qualify as dependent. Any impairment
in job performance because of intoxication, hangover, or devoting work
hours to obtaining drugs would qualify for the symptom. Anyone who
misses work each Monday to recover from weekend binges might qualify
for reduced activities. Sufficient functioning at work, however, does not
ensure against dependence. Even with stellar job performance, impaired
social functioning can also indicate problems. If a user’s only friends are
also users, and they only socialize while intoxicated or seeking drugs, the
substance has obviously had a marked impact on friendships. Recrea-
tional functioning is also important to the diagnosis. A decrease in leisure
activities suggests impaired recreation. A smoker who formerly enjoyed
hiking, reading, and theatre but now spends all free time high in front of
the television would qualify for the symptom. This approach to the di-
agnosis implies that cannabis smokers who are not experiencing a mul-
tifaceted life can improve the way they function by using less.
The last symptom of dependence requires continued use despite prob-
lems. People who persist in using the drug despite obvious negative con-
sequences would qualify for this symptom. Recurrent use regardless of
continued occupational, social, interpersonal, psychological, or health
trouble obviously shows dependence. Many of these difficulties involve
meaningful others in the user’s life. Continued consumption in the face
of conflicts with loved ones, employers, and family might qualify for this
symptom. This creates an odd diagnostic situation because the symptom
may vary with the person’s environment. These interpersonal conflicts
may arise from different attitudes about drugs among the relevant people.
For example, in a family that considers any illegal drug consumption
problematic, an occasional user might experience many fights. Someone
using equally often in a family with relaxed attitudes about drugs would
experience less conflict. This situation supports the idea that anyone who
continues to use despite negative consequences must have a strong com-
mitment to the drug, but members of a drug-oriented subculture might
Cannabis Use and Misuse 41

be less likely to be diagnosed with this symptom. Other problems need

not involve people in the smoker’s life. For example, anyone with em-
physema who continues smoking would qualify for this symptom. People
who report guilt or a loss of self-respect because of their drug use also
qualify for this symptom. Those who continue using, even when it leads
them to have a negative view of themselves, show a genuine sign of


A subset of individuals may experience negative consequences from drugs

that do not qualify for dependence but still lead to the diagnosis of sub-
stance abuse. This diagnosis requires significant impairment or distress
directly related to the use of the drug. This dysfunction and strain are
necessary to identify abuse. The diagnosis requires only one of the four
symptoms that appear in the current criteria (APA, 1994). These symp-
toms include interference with major obligations, intoxication in unsafe
settings, legal problems, and continued use in the face of troubles. Each
of these signs requires some interpretation on a diagnoser’s part, but
trained individuals apply the category reliably. Most experienced diag-
nosticians can agree who meets criteria for substance abuse and who does
not (Uestuen et al., 1997). This definition remains distinctly separate
from dependence, which requires different symptoms and more of them.
Although a diagnosis of abuse clearly serves as a sign of genuine troubles,
many clinicians consider dependence more severe. Thus, those who qual-
ify for dependence would not receive the less severe diagnosis of abuse.
The first symptom of abuse, interference with major obligations, re-
quires impaired performance at work, home, or school. The idea that
abuse requires interference with major obligations reflects concerns about
optimal functioning. The impairment may arise because of intoxication,
recovery from intoxication, or time devoted to searching for drugs. The
definition is necessarily broad in order to apply to people with a variety
of responsibilities. This symptom applies to employees who miss work
because of hangovers, students who fail tests because they attend class
high, or parents who neglect their children to go buy dope. One curious
aspect of this symptom concerns the artful way some potential abusers
arrange their lives to minimize the impact of their drug use on obliga-
tions. Anyone with few major obligations may become intoxicated more
often or more severely without qualifying for the symptom. People with
42 Understanding Marijuana

vacation time and no childcare duties could spend nearly the entire pe-
riod intoxicated without interfering with major obligations. Under these
circumstances, these people would not qualify for the symptom. Yet peo-
ple who smoke markedly less but miss work or neglect children clearly
show interference with their obligations and qualify for the abuse diag-
The second symptom requires intoxication in an unsafe setting. The
DSM specifically lists driving a car and operating machinery as hazardous
situations where intoxication could create dangerous negative conse-
quences. Many experienced drug users claim that their intoxicated driv-
ing differs little from their sober driving. These statements may reflect
poorly on their driving abilities in general, but data suggest that some
people slow down and leave more space between cars if they drive while
high (see chapter 9). At least one study found improved driving with
intoxication (Smiley, 1986). Nevertheless, given marijuana intoxication’s
established impairment of cognition, the National Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML, 1996a) clearly states that driving
after smoking is unacceptable. Driving a car high, even for only a few
blocks, qualifies as substance abuse.
The intoxicated performance of any task can lead to this diagnosis if
impairment might create negative consequences. These actions need not
be as elaborate as climbing mountains or handling firearms. Driving a
forklift or using power tools might qualify. Note that no negative con-
sequences actually need to occur; their increased likelihood can qualify
for abuse. Thus, those who drive high but never receive tickets or have
accidents would still qualify for abuse because they have increased their
likelihood of negative consequences.
The third symptom included in the diagnosis of substance abuse con-
cerns legal problems. This symptom may say as much about society’s
values as an individual’s behavior (Brecher, 1972; Grilly, 1998). The def-
inition of this symptom makes users of legal drugs less likely to get a
diagnosis of abuse than users of illegal drugs. For example, possession of
alcohol rarely leads to legal problems that would qualify for abuse; pos-
session of marijuana could. In a sense, those who willingly ingest a drug
despite these legal sanctions must have considerable investment in the
substance. Any arrest that arises from drug-impaired behavior, such as
public intoxication or driving under the influence, clearly qualifies as
abuse. Other legal problems qualify even if they do not arise from in-
toxication. These include possession, sales, and intention to distribute.
Cannabis Use and Misuse 43

Legal problems are arguably the very worst negative consequences asso-
ciated with marijuana. As discussed in chapter 10, federal penalties for
cultivation of 100 plants include life imprisonment and a $10,000,000
fine (Margolin, 1998). No other consequence of marijuana use is so se-
The fourth symptom of drug abuse concerns consistent use despite
problems. This symptom is identical to the last symptom of dependence.
Note that recurrent use in the face of occupational, social, interpersonal,
psychological, or health troubles qualifies as abuse.

CRITIQUES OF DEPENDENCE AND ABUSE The abuse and dependence di-

agnoses may have some advantages over the term addiction. Unlike ad-
diction, both abuse and dependence have widespread agreement on their
specific definitions. Diagnosticians can apply the categories reliably, too
(Uestuen et al., 1997). Nevertheless, these diagnoses, and all those in the
DSM, have many critics. The criticisms tend to focus on three problems
with diagnoses, in general. First, a political atmosphere influences diag-
noses in ways that make them appear unscientific. Second, people diag-
nosed with disorders suffer from associated stigma. Third, the definitions
may lead clinicians and drug users to minimize important problems that
do not qualify for a diagnosis.
First, political agendas influence the definitions of diagnoses, suggest-
ing that they are not as scientific as would be ideal. Proponents of the
DSM argue that abuse and dependence are genuine phenomena that exist
in nature. Therefore, refining the definitions should improve our ability
to identify the disorders. This approach suggests that abuse and depen-
dence existed all along and were discovered through scientific inquiry.
With increased research we should find the sets of symptoms that define
abuse and dependence perfectly. Critics of the DSM argue that abuse
and dependence, as well as other disorders, are not genuine phenomena
but social constructions. They see refinements in the definitions as a re-
sult of politics of an era and the opinions of psychiatrists in power. Thus,
many assert that these disorders are not discovered, they are invented.
Critics of the DSM point to ways that revisions have coincided with
political agendas. For example, people attracted to others of the same
sex were once classified with a disorder in the DSM (APA, 1968). After
concerted and difficult work on the part of many activists, this diagnosis
has been removed. Clearly, the inclusion and exclusion of same-sex sex-
ual attraction reflect a political process, not scientific inquiry. Just as
44 Understanding Marijuana

homophobia contributed to this diagnosis, critics suggest that sexism has

contributed to other categories. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a clin-
ical description of the common notion of premenstrual syndrome, ap-
pears in the DSM-IV. Obviously, the category can only apply to women.
Even if premenstrual syndrome exists, its inclusion as a mental disorder
could have extensive negative consequences. It has already served as a
legal defense to excuse criminal behavior. The diagnosis also may hurt
women seeking employment. The proposed disorder may reflect more
about the American Psychiatric Association’s attitudes about women
than it does about the existence of a natural phenomenon (Caplan, 1995;
Kutchins & Kirk, 1997).
Critics of diagnoses also focus on the negative repercussions that arise
from these labels. Once mental health professionals decide that a set of
symptoms form a disorder, the label has implications of its own. Lawyers
have argued that substance dependence or abuse excuses crimes like the
murder of children. This inadvertent result of making drug problems into
mental illnesses can hurt people seeking employment as well (Peele,
1998). The stigma associated with labels like “drug addict” or “drug
abuser” may decrease an individual’s chances of finding a job and exac-
erbate other problems.
Another potential disadvantage of these diagnoses concerns their im-
plied distinction from drug problems. A subset of marijuana users may
experience mild problems that may improve with modest interventions.
Clinicians who rely too heavily on diagnoses may miss opportunities to
intervene if people do not qualify for abuse or dependence. Recent work
on reducing the harm associated with drugs suggests that perhaps focus-
ing on addiction, abuse, or dependence may prove less helpful than di-
recting efforts toward minimizing individual problems (Marlatt, 1998).
Thus, focusing on problems may help avoid the drawbacks of diagnoses,
including their variation with political agendas, labeling, and inadvertent
minimizing of troubles that do not qualify for a diagnosis.


Describing drug-related difficulties as addiction, abuse, or dependence

creates certain misunderstandings. All three words may not only sound
deprecating (Eddy et al., 1965; Miller, Gold, & Smith, 1997), but they
also lack clarity. Addiction has no universally accepted definition. Abuse
and dependence have formal definitions and provide a shorthand to com-
Cannabis Use and Misuse 45

municate sets of symptoms quickly and easily. Nevertheless, the words

do not reveal an individual’s actual troubles. Anyone who qualifies for
abuse may have one or more of the four symptoms required. The term
“abuse” could mean any one of over a dozen combinations of different
symptoms. Dependence requires three of any seven symptoms, providing
over 30 potential combinations of symptoms. The terms also may en-
courage minimizing problems that do not qualify for diagnosis, perhaps
interfering with treatment.
People experiencing negative consequences from drugs may prove un-
willing to limit consumption if they do not qualify for addiction, abuse,
or dependence. These limitations of the terms addiction, abuse, and de-
pendence have inspired an approach that emphasizes problems rather
than diagnoses or diseases. Thus, instead of worrying about whether a
specific user qualifies for a disorder, time might be better spent identi-
fying individual problems related to marijuana use. For example, a client
may report frequent fatigue. A survey of this person’s drug use may
reveal that the fatigue often follows a night of smoking marijuana. Al-
though this problem may not interfere enough to qualify for abuse, the
client may benefit from smoking less, smoking earlier in the evening, or
quitting. This emphasis on problems may allow clinicians to avoid point-
less arguments about whether or not someone is an addict. Instead, cli-
nician and client can focus on reducing the harm marijuana may cause.

THE PREVALENCE OF PROBLEMS The frequency of marijuana problems

may prove difficult to estimate. Just as people are unwilling to confess
to using the drug, they may also be reluctant to admit to related troubles.
Thus, any studies of self-reported marijuana problems may underestimate
their number. One of the most comprehensive studies of abuse and de-
pendence began with interviews of over 42,000 people. This research
focused on people who had used cannabis in the previous year and re-
vealed that 23% qualified for a diagnosis of abuse and 6% qualified for a
diagnosis of dependence. Abuse appeared more often among rural users.
Dependence appeared more often among users who were depressed
(Grant & Pickering, 1998).
Other studies have concentrated on negative consequences rather than
diagnoses. Recent, large-scale investigations focused on problems related
to social functioning, health troubles, or psychological symptoms. For
example, those who argue with friends and family about their cannabis
consumption qualified as having a social problem. Health problems in-
46 Understanding Marijuana

cluded any medical or physical symptom that the respondents attribute

to marijuana. Psychological problems included sad mood or a loss of
interest in activities. In a large sample of Americans, 85% percent of
people who had smoked marijuana in the previous year reported none
of these problems. Fifteen percent reported one, 8% reported at least
two, and 4% reported at least three negative consequences that they
attributed to marijuana. Thus, more than four out of five people who
had smoked marijuana in the previous year reported no problems related
to the drug, but 15% might improve their lives by limiting their con-
sumption (NIDA, 1991).
This information certainly helps provide estimates of marijuana prob-
lems, but the data raise many questions, too. At first glance, it appears
that 15% of marijuana smokers experience problems with the drug. Un-
fortunately, we have no idea how many people who did not use mari-
juana experienced comparable social, medical, or psychological troubles.
A meaningful control group that included people who never smoked
marijuana would certainly help interpretations of this study. People who
have never used any drugs argue with their families, lose interest in ac-
tivities, or have health problems, too. Some of the users in this study
may have experienced these symptoms, even if they had never smoked
marijuana. Yet the tacit assumption, that the marijuana created the prob-
lems, remains untested. If marijuana smokers reported more of these sorts
of troubles than nonsmokers, the idea that cannabis caused the problems
would receive some limited support. The current approach, however,
may overestimate marijuana’s negative impact.
The limitations of this one study do not mean that marijuana does not
cause problems. Other research supports the idea that a percentage of
marijuana users experience troubles with the drug. Approximately 9%
of one group of smokers followed for 5 years developed negative con-
sequences (Weller & Halikas, 1980). These researchers defined problems
in four aspects of life. These included negative effects of the drug, prob-
lems controlling use, and interpersonal difficulties. They also included
unfavorable opinions about use. The negative effects of the drug included
physical health problems, blackouts, or a subjective feeling of depen-
dence. Problems controlling use consisted of 48-hour binges, use in the
early morning, or an inability to limit consumption. Interpersonal diffi-
culties involved fights with friends and loved ones. Adverse opinions in-
cluded feeling that marijuana use had grown excessive, guilt-inducing, or
objectionable. Unlike the 1991 NIDA study, which focused on problems
Cannabis Use and Misuse 47

that could have occurred to anyone, this study identified troubles that
concentrate more on marijuana. The 9% of the sample labeled problem
users experienced troubles in at least three of these domains. These stud-
ies both suggest that marijuana use is not harmless, and that some indi-
viduals experience negative consequences from the drug. Even those who
may not qualify for addiction, abuse, or dependence might benefit from
altering their marijuana consumption. A focus on problems may enhance
the prevention of addiction, abuse, or dependence, however they are


Marijuana is the most commonly consumed illicit drug, with 200 to 300
million users worldwide. Approximately one-third of Americans have
tried the substance at least once. Despite its popularity, few people
smoke marijuana regularly. Less than 5% of Americans report using the
drug every week. Estimating the number of users is difficult because
people lie or forget about their use. The amounts that people consume
are also hard to estimate. A variety of definitions of misuse of the drug
exist that include addiction, dependence, abuse, and problems. Addiction
does not have a universal definition, making the term difficult to use
scientifically. Abuse and dependence are diagnosed reliably and clearly
can apply to problem marijuana users. Nevertheless, the abuse and de-
pendence diagnoses may not provide the clear information one might
learn from a simple list of marijuana problems. Both diagnoses may say
more about the culture and values of a given clinician than the actual
negative consequences that cannabis creates. Marijuana problems are not
particularly common, but 6 to 23% of users report some difficulties with
the drug. Techniques for decreasing these marijuana problems appear in
chapter 11.
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Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the
Prevention of Drug Problems

Researchers, theorists, politicians, and parents have all expressed concern

about marijuana’s potential to lead to the use of drugs with worse neg-
ative consequences. Proponents of these stepping-stone and gateway the-
ories suggest that even if the adverse effects of marijuana are minimal,
the drug can still cause trouble by ushering users toward the consumption
of other illicit substances, including heroin and crack. According to this
premise, marijuana should remain a primary concern because these other
drugs create so many hardships. Comparable arguments appear against
underage drinking and cigarette smoking. The gateway and stepping-
stone theories have generated considerable research and debate for many
years. The research remains difficult to evaluate without clear definitions
of a stepping-stone and gateway. Interpreting this literature requires a
good understanding of causality. Many popular reports confuse the causes
of drug use with simple precursors. Confusion about the actual causes of
drug consumption can impair any effort to prevent substance abuse and
related problems. Thus, this chapter defines a stepping-stone and gate-
way, reviews the requirements for causality, examines the literature re-
lating marijuana consumption to the use of harder drugs, and discusses
the prevention of drug problems.
A stepping-stone provides a helpful foothold along a path, which
serves as an odd metaphor for drug use. Stepping-stone theories often
imply that marijuana produces a biological effect that somehow leads to
the uncontrollable consumption of other drugs. This sort of theorizing
began over 40 years ago (Nahas, 1990). Descriptions in popular culture
create the impression that marijuana intoxication produces an insatiable

50 Understanding Marijuana

urge for more and different drugs, something similar to the way eating
salt makes people thirsty. Data do not support these ideas. Marijuana
and hard drugs do share some biological effects. For example, THC, the
opiates, and cocaine alter the dopamine system in comparable ways
(Koob & Le Moal, 1997). The cannabinoids, however, have their own
receptor that does not react directly to drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Additional evidence against a biological stepping-stone appears in an-
imal research. If marijuana created physiological changes that increased
the desire for other drugs, animals exposed to cannabis would likely in-
gest other intoxicants when given the opportunity. Yet rodents exposed
to THC do not show a sudden willingness to press levers for other drugs.
They do not even appear willing to give themselves more THC (Schenk
& Partridge, 1999; Wiley, 1999). Thus, physiological mechanisms do not
explain any link between marijuana and the use of other intoxicants (In-
stitute of Medicine [IOM], 1999; Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).

Gateways and Causality

The lack of evidence for an obvious, biological stepping-stone inspired

theorists to formulate ideas about marijuana as a gateway drug. A gate-
way usually serves as a passage to a region. Proponents of gateway theory
show that people who use drugs like heroin and cocaine often used al-
cohol, tobacco, and marijuana first (Kandel, Yamaguchi, & Chen, 1992;
Miller, 1994). Confusion about these theories has led to the idea that
gateway drugs cause users to consume other substances. The prominent
researchers of gateway theory never state that one drug causes the in-
gestion of another one. They simply report that cigarette smoking often
precedes marijuana consumption, which usually precedes the use of
other illicit drugs. Nevertheless, a few other authors misunderstand these
data and create the impression that smoking marijuana leads inevitably
to the use of other drugs (Nahas, 1990). Avoiding these misunderstand-
ings requires a thorough understanding of causes.
The idea that one drug causes the use of another drug is difficult to
prove. Proof of a cause creating an effect requires at least three clear
criteria. These criteria were first proposed in the 1700s by the Scottish
philosopher David Hume, one of the British empiricists. Hume empha-
sized that a cause creates an effect only under certain conditions. The
conditions are association, temporal antecedence, and isolation. Associ-
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 51

ation means that the cause and effect must occur together. Temporal
antecedence means that the cause must occur first, before the effect.
Isolation means that all alternative causes must be ruled out. That is, the
effect could not have occurred because of some other potential cause
(Hume, 1739).
The best evidence for causality comes from experiments where the
hypothesized cause can be manipulated. The cause should lead to the
effect; its absence should create no effect (or a different one). For ex-
ample, an experiment might reveal that marijuana causes intoxication by
comparing people who smoked cannabis to an equivalent group of other
people who smoked a placebo. This sort of experiment could provide
evidence for all three of Hume’s criteria. A large group of people who
are not under the influence of any drug might begin by rating their in-
toxication. Presumably, all would claim their intoxication level was 0.
The experimenter would then choose half these people at random to
smoke marijuana. The other half would smoke a credible placebo. This
random selection of people would help ensure that the two groups are
similar. A second assessment of intoxication would likely reveal higher
ratings of intoxication for the people who smoked marijuana than those
who smoked the placebo.
The data from this experiment would satisfy Hume’s criteria. The
marijuana group’s higher intoxication ratings reveal that the drug and the
effect are associated. Because the groups did not differ before smoking,
only after, the marijuana apparently preceded the effect. Thus, the tem-
poral antecedence is fulfilled. Finally, all other sources of intoxication are
ruled out because the two groups only differ in smoking cannabis or
placebo. This condition helps eliminate any alternative explanations or
causes. These data support the conclusion that marijuana can be isolated
as the cause of this intoxication.
A simple experiment works well for proving cannabis causes intoxi-
cation, but researchers cannot use a human experiment to test the gate-
way theory. Randomly exposing people to marijuana to see who goes on
to snort coke, bang junk, or drop acid creates many practical and ethical
problems. These problems make isolating marijuana as the cause of other
drug use impossible in humans. An obvious alternative approach could
employ animal participants. No animal experiments have found that ex-
posure to THC increases the likelihood of using other drugs or of even
working for more THC (Schenk & Partridge, 1999; Wiley, 1999). Thus,
gateway theory’s only support comes from correlational studies.
52 Understanding Marijuana

Correlational investigations often examine users of crack or heroin and

ask which drugs they used previously. These studies may establish an
association and temporal antecedence, but fail to isolate marijuana as a
cause. At first glance, the idea that users of hard drugs used marijuana
previously seems compelling evidence for marijuana’s contribution to
drug problems. Nevertheless, a couple of exaggerated examples may il-
lustrate how treating these data as causal evidence is erroneous.

Errors in Causal Reasoning

Suppose data revealed that the crime rate in a city rises as the number
of churches increases. This association might lead some cynic to hypoth-
esize that churches cause crime. Data may suggest that the churches are
built prior to the increases in crime, further supporting the theory. Both
the association between cause and effect and the precedence of the cause
appear. Nevertheless, these two facts alone do not establish that churches
cause crime. An alternative explanation remains. As cities grow larger,
both crime and the number of churches increase. The size of the pop-
ulation accounts for both of these increases. One need not cause the
other. Another example concerns shoe size and vocabulary. Data reveal
that people who know more words also have larger shoes. One might
hypothesize that memory for words is stored in the feet. Obviously, age
can account for this relationship. As children grow older their feet grow
and they learn more words.
Although these examples appear absurd, data misinterpreted to sup-
port that marijuana causes crack addiction are comparable to those in
support of churches causing crime and vocabulary increasing shoe size.
In fact, the correlations for these absurd examples are probably larger
than those linking marijuana to crack. Most studies cited in support of
the gateway theory show that people using heroin or crack used mari-
juana first. Unfortunately, these data tell little about the magnitude of
the association between marijuana and hard drugs. Because only the users
of hard drugs serve as participants, the data neglect the many, many
people who consumed cannabis but no other illicit drugs. The use of
marijuana also does not always precede the use of harder drugs, limiting
the support for temporal antecedence. That is, some people try crack or
ecstasy before they smoke cannabis. These data also fail to isolate mari-
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 53

juana as a cause. The association, temporal antecedence, and isolation

criteria are explained in more detail below.


Hume’s first criterion for establishing a cause concerns association. De-

spite popular stereotypes, the association between marijuana and harder
drugs is not particularly strong. Many people who abuse hard drugs used
marijuana first, but few people who smoke marijuana go on to consume
other intoxicants. One study found that 75% of men who used marijuana
between 10 and 99 times never used any other illicit drug (Kandel &
Davies, 1992). Part of the absence of an association stems from the small
number of people who use hard drugs relative to the many who have
tried marijuana. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Serv-
ices Administration (SAMHSA, 2000) can shed light on this question
(see table 3.1).
Most associations are expressed as a correlation coefficient, a number
ranging from ⫺1 to ⫹1 that depicts how well two phenomena go to-
gether. If everyone who tried marijuana also snorted cocaine, their cor-
relation would be 1.0. Few phenomena go together perfectly, but larger
numbers (up to 1.0) mean a stronger relationship. Correlations around
.3 frequently receive some attention in the social sciences. For example,
Scholastic Aptitude Test math scores correlate approximately .3 with
grades in math classes (Gougeon, 1984). Personality measures and alco-
hol consumption often correlate between .3 and .4 (Earleywine, Finn, &
Martin, 1990; Earleywine & Finn, 1991). Correlations smaller than .3
often attract little attention.

Table 3.1. 1999 Drug Use Rates in America (in millions)

Marijuana Cocaine Crack Heroin

Lifetime 76.4 25.4 5.9 3.0

Past year 19.5 3.7 1.0 0.4
Past month 11.1 1.5 0.4 0.2

Data from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (2000).
Summary of findings from the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, Rockville, MD:
54 Understanding Marijuana

Based on the national survey data, the actual correlation between mar-
ijuana and crack cocaine use is .02. This calculation assumes that every-
one who used crack cocaine used marijuana first. In addition, this cal-
culation takes into account the many people who use marijuana and
never try the harder drug. The correlations between marijuana and heroin
are even smaller. (See the final section of this chapter for the computa-
tions.) Thus, most correlations that scientists view as important are over
15 times larger than the correlation between marijuana and crack cocaine
Standard measures of the correlation between marijuana use and the
use of harder drugs are very small. They offer little support for an asso-
ciation between marijuana and other drugs. In an effort to depict the link
between marijuana and other drugs in a different way, some authors have
turned to another statistical procedure known as conditional probabili-
ties. Conditional probabilities reveal the chances that people will try a
harder drug if they have tried marijuana. They are computed by dividing
the number of users of the harder drug by the number of marijuana users.
If everyone who smoked marijuana tried crack, the conditional proba-
bility would be 1.0. If half the marijuana users tried crack, the conditional
probability would be .5. If we had 100 people and 30 of them used
cannabis, the conditional probability of using cannabis would be .3. If 10
of those 30 went on to try crack, the chance of using cocaine given that
cannabis was used first would be one-third.
Again, assume that everyone in the national survey who used a hard
drug tried marijuana first. The chance of trying powder cocaine after
trying marijuana appears to be relatively high. If all 25 million people
who tried cocaine were among the 76 million who had also tried mari-
juana, 25 million divided by 76 million equals .33. Thus, 1 in 3 people
who try marijuana also try cocaine. This number is certainly large enough
to warrant concern. Statistics like these motivated drug reformers in the
Netherlands to remove criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana
in hope of separating it from the cocaine drug market. They also inspired
increased penalties for cannabis in the United States.
The conditional probability linking marijuana to cocaine may be
alarming. Nevertheless, the number of marijuana users who continue to
use cocaine regularly is markedly smaller. Although 25 million Americans
have used cocaine in their lifetimes, fewer than 4 million used it in the
past year. Assume that these people use the drug at least once a year,
and that they all tried marijuana first. Thus, the chances of marijuana
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 55

leading to yearly cocaine use are 4 million (the number of yearly cocaine
users) divided by 76 million (the number who tried cannabis), or about
.05. This means only 1 in 20 people who try marijuana use cocaine once
a year or more. Even fewer people used cocaine in the last month (1.5
million). Comparable computations suggest that the chances of trying
marijuana and then using cocaine monthly are .02, or about 1 in 50.
Thus, less than 2 in 100 marijuana users go on to use cocaine monthly.
The probabilities for using crack cocaine and heroin are even lower (see
table 3.2).
Thus, the association between marijuana consumption and problem
use of other drugs is very small. In fact, studies of the gateway theory do
not assess the problems associated with hard drug use; they simply focus
on trying other substances. Some studies consider trying a drug a single
time as confirmation of use (e.g., Blaze-Temple & Lo, 1992), an approach
that has drawn criticism (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997). Trying marijuana is
not sufficient to cause the use of harder drugs. Even if the association
were markedly larger, this criterion alone does not establish causality.
Causal arguments require temporal antecedence and isolation, too.

Table 3.2. Gateway Associations

Of all Americans who have tried marijuana

Few have used marijuana regularly
approximately 1 in 4 used marijuana in the past year (25.5%)
approximately 1 in 7 used marijuana in the past month (14.7%)
Few people who have tried marijuana have used cocaine
approximately 1 in 3 tried cocaine (33.0%)
approximately 1 in 20 used cocaine in the past year (4.8%)
approximately 1 in 50 used cocaine in the past month (2.0%)
Even fewer people who have tried marijuana have used crack
approximately 1 in 13 tried crack (7.7%)
approximately 1 in 100 used crack in the past year (1.3%)
approximately 1 in 200 used crack in the past month (0.5%)
Even fewer people who have tried marijuana have used heroin
approximately 1 in 26 tried heroin (3.9%)
approximately 1 in 200 used heroin in the past year (0.5%)
approximately 1 in 333 used heroin in the past month (0.3%)

These calculations assume that everyone who ever tried hard drugs used marijuana first. Data from
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (2000). Summary of find-
ings from the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, Rockville, MD: SAMHSA.
56 Understanding Marijuana

Temporal Antecedence

If marijuana actually caused the consumption of other intoxicants, canna-

bis consumption must precede the use of hard drugs. Many studies show
that hard drug users smoke marijuana first. The stereotyped progression of
the use of drugs probably begins with caffeine, but no data address this
drug’s potential as a gateway. Most research suggests that adolescents first
use alcohol or nicotine. Some authors argue that cigarettes serve as the ac-
tual gateway to drug problems (Kandel et al., 1992; Labouvie, Bates, &
Pandina, 1997). A subset of the people who drink alcohol and smoke cig-
arettes subsequently use marijuana. A subset of those who try marijuana
then use harder drugs like cocaine, crack, and heroin. Some researchers re-
port that over 90% of people who try hard drugs tried marijuana first, sug-
gesting temporal antecedence. They also ate white sugar, breathed air, and
attended grade school. Thus, although hard drug users smoke marijuana
before turning to other substances, this fact alone does not prove causality.
In addition, the order of drug use is not always perfectly consistent with
the idea that marijuana is the gateway. Many hard drug users do not start
with marijuana. Allen Ginsberg, the celebrated “beat” poet, serves as one
notable exception. He injected heroin before smoking cannabis (Ginsberg,
1966). Large samples with thousands of respondents show a range of hard
drug users who did not try marijuana first. One study found that as few as
1% of people who used hard drugs had not tried marijuana (Donovan &
Jessor, 1983). In contrast, 15% of another sample of heavy drug users
started with cocaine or intravenous drugs before smoking marijuana (Go-
lub & Johnson, 1994). A study of Australian youth found that 29% of
those who had used amphetamine, LSD, cocaine, or heroin had not used
marijuana first (Blaze-Temple & Lo, 1992). Other research found 39% of
a sample used hard drugs before trying cannabis (Mackesy-Amiti, Fen-
drich, & Goldstein, 1997). Thus, temporal antecedence applies in some
cases of hard drug use, but not all. Even a perfect ordering with marijuana
preceding all other drug use does not prove causality without isolation.

Isolation: Independent Processes or Problem Behavior?

Hume’s last criterion for causality concerns isolation. If marijuana actu-

ally causes the use of hard drugs, other explanations should not account
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 57

for any association between them. At least two alternative explanations

have some empirical support. One concerns the idea that the initiation
of each drug arises from its own individual process. Miller (1994) calls
this approach the statistical independence hypothesis. This hypothesis
states that using one drug stems from its own availability, expectancies,
and motivations that are separate from those related to another drug.
Thus, the initiation of caffeine may stem from one process; the initiation
of heroin may stem from another. The other idea that may account for
stages of drug use focuses on the abuse of any and all substances as part
of a cluster of larger problem behaviors. This problem behavior theory
views substance abuse, unsafe sex, crime, and delinquency as all part of
the same underlying trouble.
The rationale for individual processes follows statistical logic. People
who participate in rare events likely engage in popular activities first. For
example, more people view television than skydive. Thus, we would ex-
pect that most skydivers watched TV before they leaped from a plane.
This fact need not mean that television causes skydiving. The two acts
probably arise from independent, individual processes. Yet the most com-
mon one occurs first simply because it is more common. Comparable
logic applies to drug consumption. People who use drugs will likely begin
with those that are most common. Thus, individuals may use marijuana
before cocaine because marijuana is more prevalent in our culture. Yet
this fact need not mean that marijuana caused cocaine consumption. A
massive study of four national samples including over 6,000 participants
suggests that a large portion of the appearance of stages of drug use can
be accounted for by statistically independent processes (Miller, 1994).
This model does not account for all the data, but independent processes
clearly contribute to the progression of drug use.
An alternative way to test the statistical independence hypothesis
might examine neighborhoods where crack cocaine is more available than
marijuana. If most drug users in such neighborhoods smoked crack before
cannabis, the role of availability might receive some support. Under these
circumstances, few could conclude that crack is a gateway leading to
cannabis. Instead, people use the most available drug first and less avail-
able drugs later or not at all.
Another alternative explanation of drug sequencing concerns problem
behavior theory. According to this theory, a small group of adolescents
engage in a cluster of actions that all may lead to negative consequences
(Jessor & Jessor, 1977). These problem behaviors include drug consump-
58 Understanding Marijuana

tion, poor school performance, unsafe sex, and criminal activities. Ac-
cording to this theory, the association between cannabis use and the con-
sumption of other drugs does not arise because marijuana causes
problems with other substances. Instead, both marijuana and the use of
other intoxicants arise from the underlying problem orientation in a sub-
set of individuals.
Many studies reveal strong correlations among the use of different
drugs (Earleywine & Newcomb, 1997). Several potentially dangerous ac-
tions also correlate with drug use (Jessor, 1998). Miller (1994) analyzed
data from four national surveys including more than 6,000 participants
and found that problem behavior theory may account for the appearance
of stage-like progressions in substance use. He found a large subgroup
who used many drugs, and another set of people who used no drugs at
all. These results are consistent with the idea that an underlying
“problem-proneness” may account for links between marijuana and other
drugs. Essentially, cannabis does not cause cocaine consumption, but a
subset of people who like marijuana also like cocaine.
In addition to statistical independence and problem behavior theory,
a third set of findings also supports arguments against marijuana as an
isolated cause of hard drug use. Studies that show personality traits cor-
relate with the use of multiple substances may mean that a personality
characteristic led to both marijuana use and hard drug use. These data
suggest that the same personality traits that can lead to smoking cannabis
can also lead to snorting cocaine. Thus, the marijuana may not cause the
use of the other drugs; both stem from the same underlying character-
istic. Although evidence for an addictive personality is clearly limited
(Nathan, 1988), people who report strong desires for thrill, adventures,
and sensations often use a greater variety and amount of drugs (Simon,
Stacy, Sussman, & Dent, 1994).
These findings support the idea that marijuana cannot be isolated as
the cause of the use of hard drugs. Simple exposure to cannabis is not
strongly associated with the use of other intoxicants. Hard drug users do
not always use marijuana first. Causes other than marijuana also lead to
the consumption of heroin or cocaine. Nevertheless, some authors argue
that marijuana may still contribute to the use of harder drugs, even if it
is not a unitary cause. They assert that even if cannabis does not qualify
as the cause of other drug problems, it facilitates the use of more sub-
stances, increasing the likelihood of trouble.
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 59

Marijuana as Contributor Rather than Cause

Few interesting behaviors, including drug use, arise from a single process.
Data do not support the idea that smoking marijuana causes the abuse
of other substances. Nevertheless, perhaps marijuana “contributes” to the
use of other drugs, even if it does not serve as the sole cause. This con-
tributing process could work in several ways. For example, smoking mar-
ijuana may lead people to think of themselves as illicit drug users, making
hard drug consumption more likely. Another pathway may arise when
purchasing marijuana exposes people to the market for other drugs. In
addition, marijuana intoxication may limit a person’s ability to refuse
harder drugs when they are offered. These factors may interact to con-
tribute to the transition from cannabis consumption to hard drug use.
Each of these paths is discussed in the following paragraphs.
One potential path for marijuana’s impact on substance abuse con-
cerns an individual’s identity as an illicit drug user. Despite rampant con-
sumption of caffeine and nicotine, few of us see ourselves as drug users.
Most people who have never consumed an illicit drug would claim that
they have no intention of snorting cocaine or smoking crack. Yet people
might alter their impressions of themselves after smoking marijuana.
With continued consumption of cannabis, people may see themselves as
illicit drug users. After establishing this identity, their chances of trying
other drugs may increase. Thus, people who may have had no intention
of using cocaine or crack before they smoked marijuana may consider
consuming these drugs after a period of cannabis use. Researchers have
yet to examine this potential path, but studies along these lines may
prove fruitful. Longitudinal studies might assess each individual’s identity
as a drug user over time. Some of those who try marijuana may adopt
this identity; others may not. If those who smoke cannabis and subse-
quently consider themselves illicit drug users make the transition to hard
drugs, the data would support this theory.
Another pathway may involve exposure to the illicit drug market.
Suppliers of cannabis may also sell harder drugs, exposing marijuana pur-
chasers to cocaine or heroin. A supplier may have a set of marketing
strategies for these harder drugs, including strong personal testimony
about their quality. Each purchase of marijuana may expose people to
sales pitches for more harmful drugs, perhaps increasing the likelihood
60 Understanding Marijuana

of eventually trying them. Few studies address this course, but it has a
certain intuitive appeal. This line of reasoning motivated marijuana de-
criminalization in the Netherlands in an attempt to separate it from the
hard drug market. Some studies suggest that this move decreased the
consumption of hard drugs (see chapter 10). Other studies might include
interviewing hard drug users to see if they first obtained these drugs from
the same person who supplied their cannabis.
Finally, perhaps marijuana users would be more likely to try other
drugs during intoxication. People often use combinations of different
substances (Earleywine & Newcomb, 1997). Yet no data address if peo-
ple first try cocaine or heroin while experiencing cannabis’s effects. The
cognitive impairments associated with marijuana intoxication might de-
crease an individual’s ability to resist using other drugs. A couple of ex-
periments might shed light on this phenomenon. Researchers might pro-
vide access to cocaine or heroin after injecting THC into rodents to see
if they are more likely to consume the new drugs during intoxication.
Studies of human reactions might rely on self-reported willingness to try
other drugs after smoking marijuana. People may claim to be more likely
to ingest a new substance after consuming cannabis than they would after
smoking a placebo. These data would support the idea that marijuana
intoxication alters the probability of consuming hard drugs.

Preventing Substance Abuse

If marijuana consumption led directly to the abuse of hard drugs, pre-

venting substance abuse would be simpler. In fact, drug problems arise
from complex interactions of multiple factors. Preventing addiction and
other aspects of substance abuse proves difficult. Many attempts have
been relatively unsuccessful, including scare tactics, basic drug education,
the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, and enhancing
self-esteem. Other programs show more promise, including interactive
sessions that teach techniques for combating peer pressure to use drugs.
Social influence programs combine multiple strategies and have proven
effective at decreasing drug use (Sussman, Dent, Stacy, & Craig, 1998).
Unfortunately, no program has consistently eliminated drug abuse in all
participants, and the impact of prevention efforts can often dissipate
quickly (Shope, Copeland, Kamp, & Lang, 1998). Deterring drug prob-
lems remains an ongoing challenge.
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 61

Efforts to prevent drug-induced harm are likely as old as the drugs

themselves. Some relied on outrageous punishments, such as the Czar of
Russia in 1634 who slit the nostrils of soldiers found smoking tobacco
(Maisto, Galizio, & Connors, 1995). Some current attempts to minimize
drug problems are less punitive and stem from programs developed in
the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, the sudden widespread use
of marijuana, barbiturates, amphetamines, and hallucinogens made many
adults panic. They quickly designed programs to arouse fear of the ad-
verse consequences of drugs. Unfortunately, some of the information ap-
peared exaggerated or flagrantly wrong. These errors eroded the credi-
bility of the presentations, leading young people to doubt the entire
content of the program. Thus, the scare tactics proved ineffective in pre-
venting the use of alcohol and other drugs (Goldberg, Bents, Bosworth,
Trevistan, & Elliot, 1991; Powers-Lagac, 1991). Paradoxically, some re-
bellious adolescents viewed the threat of negative consequences as a chal-
lenge. They may have initiated drug use in an effort to show courage.
Thus, sometimes scare tactics actually backfire and lead to more drug
Perhaps in reaction to the failure of scare tactics, some prevention
experts adopted an opposite approach. They supplied objective infor-
mation about illicit substances and their consequences without exagger-
ation or drama. Designers of these standard drug education programs
hoped that this tactic would enhance their credibility and help students
make informed decisions. Ideally, the candid assessment of the negative
consequences would lead students to stay away from drugs. Participants
in these programs invariably learned a lot about different substances.
Most studies showed that students exposed to this information learned
a great deal about drugs of abuse and their potential adverse conse-
quences. Despite increasing knowledge, this approach often had no im-
pact on drug use. Some participants simply became more knowledgeable
users. These programs occasionally had the undesired effect of increasing
curiosity about illicit substances (Schinke, Botvin, & Orlandi, 1991).
Nevertheless, many programs still include objective information to boost
The DARE program remains one of the best-known, school-based at-
tempts to minimize substance abuse. In 1983, the Los Angeles Police
Department and Los Angeles United School District collaborated to
bring law enforcement officers into elementary schools to teach general
information, drug refusal, and self-management. The project became in-
62 Understanding Marijuana

credibly popular, spreading to all 50 states and many foreign countries.

Students and police officers reported enjoying the program; parents and
other members of the community felt good about it, too (Levinthal,
1999). Despite this popularity, DARE has no meaningful impact on drug
use. At least eight studies show little difference between students who
participated in the program and those who did not (Ennett, Tobler, Ring-
walt, & Flewelling, 1994). Research on over 1,000 participants showed
that the program never created a better outcome than standard drug
education (Lynam et al., 1999). Perhaps expectations for the program
were too high. For example, some data looked at students 10 years after
the program. Few psychological interventions have such a dramatic im-
pact that their positive effects remain for 10 years. Nevertheless, given
the expense of the project and its limited impact, children may benefit
more from spending their time in pursuit of a classical education than
listening to a police officer tell them to abstain.
Another approach designed to decrease drug abuse focused on en-
hancing self-esteem. Self-esteem correlates with drug consumption in
some studies (Hoefler et al., 1999), suggesting that an improved sense of
pride and efficacy might prevent substance abuse. Prevention programs
of this ilk boosted perceptions of self-worth quite consistently. Paradox-
ically, some studies found higher self-esteem was associated with more
drug use (Newcomb, McCarthy, & Bentler, 1989; Stein, Newcomb, &
Bentler, 1996). Perhaps individuals felt so confident that they believed
they could handle drugs without developing problems. Although im-
proving positive feelings about individual successes and personal qualities
may increase happiness, these strategies do not prevent drug consump-
tion (Donaldson et al., 1996).
Although the strategies above have had little impact on substance
abuse, others show some promise. Social influence approaches to pre-
venting substance abuse have met with considerable success. These pro-
grams combine several different techniques to inoculate people against
social pressures to use drugs. The most successful programs use an inter-
active style, encouraging contributions and involvement from partici-
pants. The programs begin with basic information on the physical con-
sequences of drug use, with emphasis on long-term and short-term
negative effects. They then review techniques for making decisions about
drugs that will minimize negative consequences. These techniques usu-
ally require an assessment of the pros and cons of consumption. Partici-
pants then make a public commitment to a drug-free lifestyle, often by
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 63

standing in front of other participants to declare their intention. These

activities have helped alter attitudes about drugs in other interventions.
In addition to these activities, social influence programs add unique com-
ponents to improve outcomes.
The unique components of social influence programs include increas-
ing awareness about the actual number of drug users, developing skills
for refusing drugs when offered, and combating indirect social pressures
to use drugs. Perceptions of the number of users often lead to a skewed
sense of drug consumption. People often hold the faulty idea that drug
use is extremely common, and may feel that they should use drugs in
order to obey this norm. Drug users often assume that everyone else uses
drugs, too. Perceptions of norms for behavior guide actions in many do-
mains. Objective information about drug consumption often surprises
participants, who frequently overestimate the incidence of use (Perkins,
Meilman, Leichliter, Cashin, & Presley, 1999). Accurate assessments of
the number of users may minimize pressures related to the idea that
everyone else consumes illicit drugs.
Drug refusal skills focus on resisting peer pressure to consume drugs.
These include more than Nancy Reagan’s simplistic recommendations to
“just say no.” Students engage in role plays designed to enhance their
ability to decline drugs whenever they are offered. Strategies include
keeping their refusals direct, suggesting alternative activities, avoiding sit-
uations where drugs are prevalent, and walking away if pressures feel
threatening. Increasing awareness of indirect pressures to use drugs often
focuses on the inaccuracy of glamorized media portrayals of substance
use. Indirect pressures also may arise when social models, including par-
ents, older siblings, and peers use drugs. Increasing awareness about these
pressures may help inoculate against drug use (Donaldson et al., 1996).
The majority of programs that employ this social influence approach have
had positive effects (Hansen, 1992). Implementing them in more settings
with detailed follow-up research can help minimize drug problems in
ways that simplistic assumptions about marijuana as a gateway cannot.


The idea that marijuana serves as a gateway or stepping-stone to the

consumption of harder drugs with worse negative consequences has gen-
erated considerable interest. There is no evidence that cannabis creates
64 Understanding Marijuana

physiological changes that increase the desire for drugs. The idea that
marijuana causes subsequent drug use also appears unfounded. Causes
require association, temporal antecedence, and isolation. Evidence for the
association between marijuana and other drugs remains limited. Data do
reveal that the majority of cocaine and heroin users consumed cannabis
first. Nevertheless, only a minority of marijuana smokers try cocaine,
crack, or heroin. Only a few people become regular users of these intox-
icants. In addition, marijuana does not precede the use of hard drugs in
all cases. Finally, correlations between marijuana smoking, hard drug con-
sumption, and other problem behaviors suggest that one drug may not
lead to another so much as all use of illicit substances reflects an under-
lying deviance or personality characteristic. Thus, prevention of drug
problems requires more than staying away from cannabis.
Many programs designed to minimize substance abuse have met with
only limited success. The scare tactics of the 1960s and 1970s had little
impact on drug use. The DARE program, though popular, does little to
prevent the use of illicit substances. The enhancement of self-esteem also
does not prevent drug problems. One series of studies suggests that pro-
grams designed to minimize the impact of social influences to use drugs
holds considerable promise. By providing valid information on the rela-
tive infrequency of drug use and valuable coaching on ways to resist
pressures to use intoxicants, these programs can help decrease the inci-
dence of abuse and dependence.

Comment on the Computation of Correlations

A few adventurous souls may wish to know the exact correlation be-
tween marijuana use and the use of other drugs. A Pearson product-
moment correlation can be computed from a 2 ⫻ 2 table using the cross
products and the marginals, in a manner that is easier done than said.
Cross products are computed by multiplying the numbers along the di-
agonal. Marginals are the totals across each row and column. The cor-
relation (R) equals the difference in the cross products divided by the
square root of the product of all four marginals (Rosenthal & Rosnow,
1991). Using the data on drug use from 1999, and an assumption of 221
million adult Americans, we can compute the correlation between mar-
ijuana and crack cocaine use. Assume absolutely everyone who tried
Stepping-Stones, Gateways, and the Prevention of Drug Problems 65

Table 3.3. Millions of Americans Who Have

Tried Marijuana, Crack Cocaine, Both, or
Neither (1999)

Tried marijuana

Tried crack Yes No Total

Yes 6 0 6
No 70 145 215
Total 76 145

crack tried marijuana previously. The number of people (in millions),

who tried marijuana, crack cocaine, both, or neither, appears in table 3.3.
Thus, of 221 million adult Americans, 76 million tried marijuana and
145 million did not. Assume that the 6 million Americans who tried
crack cocaine also tried marijuana. Thus, 70 million people who tried
marijuana never tried crack. The correlation from this table is computed
by starting with the difference in the cross products. Moving from the
upper left to lower right on the diagonal, we have 6 million ⫻ 145 mil-
lion ⫽ 8.7 ⫻ 1013. The upper right times the lower left is 0 ⫻ 70 million
⫽ 0. The difference between these two equals 8.7 ⫻ 1013. We divide this
number by the square root of the product of the four marginals. SQRT
(76 million ⫻ 145 million ⫻ 6 million ⫻ 215 million)⫽ 3.77 ⫻ 1015.
We divide 8.7 ⫻ 1013 by this number and get a correlation of .02. The
numbers for heroin are even smaller because so few people have ever
tried it. Thus, the correlation between marijuana consumption and the
regular use of these harder drugs is negligible.
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Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and

People think and remember differently during cannabis intoxication.

Chronic consumption of the drug might change aspects of cognition, too.
The deficits associated with intoxication are relatively specific. People
who are high show obvious problems concentrating, attending to details,
focusing on goals, performing two actions simultaneously, and learning
new, complex information. These problems grow worse with higher
doses of the drug and more complicated tasks. In some studies, marijuana
intoxication impairs the ability to react quickly, show restraint, and per-
sist with dull exercises. Intoxicated people should probably avoid any
task that requires fast reflexes or sustained attention. Many other facets
of thought remain intact after smoking cannabis, including the ability to
learn simple tasks and remember material mastered prior to using the
Intoxication clearly alters some aspects of thought and memory. In
addition, chronic exposure to cannabis may change cognition. Some stud-
ies reveal cognitive problems associated with long-term use of cannabis,
but many others do not. Some of the first research on the effects of
chronic marijuana exposure did not reveal much impact of the drug.
Only a few studies revealed altered thinking and memory in people with
many years of daily use, and other research found that chronic users
performed as well as nonusers on plenty of measures. These studies sug-
gested that chronic smoking of marijuana likely does not produce major
changes in general cognitive abilities like intelligence, memory, and the
ability to learn.
This absence of gross impairments is reassuring, but research employ-

68 Understanding Marijuana

ing more sensitive measures reveals subtle deficits in users with pro-
longed, frequent exposure to the drug. These people appear to process
information less quickly and efficiently. Chronic, heavy marijuana smok-
ers also show deviant brain waves when performing certain complex
tasks. The practical implications of these effects remain unclear. Critics
of this work emphasize many methodological flaws. Nevertheless, re-
search still suggests that chronic use of marijuana leads to subtle problems
in complex tasks. Each of these effects and the relevant research issues
appear below.

Overview of Acute Effects

Cannabis intoxication alters thoughts. The exact extent of the alteration

varies with dosage, setting, experience, and other factors. Higher doses
in novel, laboratory settings may produce dramatic impairment on some
tasks, particularly in people who have little experience with the drug.
Cannabis has a varied impact on different measures. Generally, marijuana
does not alter performance on easy tasks but impairs complex ones. For
example, simple learning tasks like memorizing pairs of words show little
change during intoxication. Memory for material learned prior to intox-
ication also remains intact while participants are high. For example, par-
ticipants who memorize a list of words before they smoke cannabis can
remember the list during intoxication.
Laboratory evidence is inconsistent for marijuana intoxication’s effect
on some other tasks. A few studies suggest intoxication hurts perfor-
mance, but others do not. For example, cannabis makes simple reaction
times longer in some studies but not others. Intoxicated people can have
trouble solving problems in new ways, but not in all studies. Some re-
search suggests that people cannot pay attention for long durations after
smoking marijuana; other studies show no problems on this sort of task.
Another set of skills clearly suffers after smoking marijuana. Intoxication
consistently impairs time perception, reading difficult material aloud,
mental arithmetic, complex reaction time, and certain aspects of memory
and perception. A summary of the acute effects on cognitive tasks fol-

Probably unaffected
easy learning
remote memory
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 69

Possibly affected
simple reaction time

Probably affected
reading aloud
complex reaction time
intrusions in recognition memory

Acute Effects
Probably Unaffected Tasks

Proving that a drug has no effect is difficult. A single study may not have
enough participants to reveal cannabis-induced changes, the dosage of
marijuana may be too small to achieve an effect, or the tests may be too
easy. Nevertheless, multiple studies with proper doses and adequately
large samples suggest that cannabis intoxication does not impair the abil-
ity to learn simple tasks or remember material mastered before intoxi-

SIMPLE LEARNING — PAIRED ASSOCIATES One version of paired associ-

ates learning requires reading pairs of words. After a delay, participants
view one word and attempt to recall the associated word from the pre-
viously learned pair. For example, a list might include the word “baby”
paired with “red.” The experimenter might then present the word “baby.”
The participant should then respond with “red.” Marijuana intoxication
does not appear to alter performance on this task. Intoxicated individuals
recall the appropriate words as often as people who smoked placebo pot,
suggesting that the drug does not impair simple learning (e.g., Chait &
Pierri, 1992; Hooker & Jones, 1987).

REMOTE MEMORY Although cannabis intoxication is notorious for its im-

pact on memory, some domains of recall show little impairment. Remote
memory, which concerns the ability to retrieve material already learned,
70 Understanding Marijuana

does not suffer during intoxication. Most studies of remote memory dur-
ing intoxication ask participants to recall words that they learned prior
to ingesting THC. In other studies, intoxicated people list all the words
they know that begin with a specific letter. One research team asked
participants to remember TV shows that ran for only a single season
many years previously (Wetzel, Janowsky, & Clopton, 1982). In each
case, participants knew the information before they smoked marijuana
in the laboratory. The drug did not impair these remote memory tasks
(Chait & Pierri, 1992). Thus, intoxicated people can likely remember
material they learned before smoking marijuana—from their first grade
teacher’s name to recently learned lists of words. In fact, some users
report that during intoxication they are more likely to spontaneously
remember remote events from their past that they had not recalled in
years (Tart, 1971). This claim has not been tested empirically but seems
consistent with the absence of an impact on remote memory.

Possibly Affected Tasks

Marijuana has had inconsistent or limited impact on simple reaction time,

disinhibition, and vigilance. Thus, it is unclear if cannabis intoxication
prevents people from responding quickly, inhibiting automatic reactions,
and persisting on long, tedious assignments. Some studies have used small
samples, making small effects difficult to detect. A few studies used small
doses of the drug. These did not impair performance, but larger doses
might have. Further work in these areas may help clarify the drug’s effect
on these abilities.

SIMPLE REACTION TIME Researchers assess reaction time by asking par-

ticipants to press a switch as quickly as possible after hearing a tone or
seeing a light. This task usually requires quick thinking and quick reflexes,
but does not demand any complex decisions. Marijuana intoxication had
small but statistically significant effects in some studies (Borg, Gershon,
& Alpert, 1975; Dornbush, Fink, & Freedman, 1971), but no effect in
others (Braden, Stillman, & Wyatt, 1974; Evans, Martz, Rodda, Lem-
berger, & Forney, 1976). The studies that found no impact of marijuana
used comparable dosages, suggesting that the absence of an effect did not
arise from too little of the drug. These studies also examined as many
participants as those that found marijuana impaired reaction time, sug-
gesting that the absence of an effect did not arise from failing to test
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 71

enough people. Thus, the lack of an effect does not seem to stem from
inadequate methods. Only further work can reveal the exact impact of
intoxication on simple reaction times.
The potential effect of marijuana on reaction time creates difficulties
for other research on cognition. Many tests of thinking rely on speeded
performance. For example, measures of the efficiency of thought often
look at the time required to press a correct button. Any test that requires
quick responding might show marijuana-induced impairments simply be-
cause of the drug’s impact on reaction time. Nevertheless, given the small
and inconsistent effects, researchers generally assume that the impact of
marijuana on other tasks probably does not stem from a simple problem
with reaction time (Chait & Pierri, 1992).

DISINHIBITION To the disappointment of many, much of adult life re-

quires consistent restraint. The inability to inhibit can lead to a broad
array of problematic actions, including troublesome overeating, frequent
intoxication, ill-advised sexual encounters, and violent outbursts. These
behaviors can have negative repercussions that range from embarrass-
ment and illness to unemployment or imprisonment. Although research-
ers cannot measure all of these consequences of disinhibition in the lab-
oratory, a few creative tasks have been developed that seem to relate to
the general ability. The impact of marijuana on these tasks has been
A few studies have examined cannabis’s effect on the Stroop task. This
task requires looking at the names of colors (e.g., red, green, blue) printed
in colored ink. The color of the ink may not match the word. For ex-
ample, the word “BLUE” might appear in red ink. Instead of reading the
words, participants must name the color of the ink. This task is difficult
because people have much more practice reading words aloud than nam-
ing colors. The correct response to the word “BLUE” printed in red ink is
to say the word “RED,” the ink’s color. This response requires inhibiting
the dominant reaction, to read the word “BLUE.”
People take longer to name the colors of these words than they take
to name the colors of a series of letters that do not spell words. The fact
that the words are the names of colors interferes with naming the color
of the ink. Researchers generally interpret this task as a measure of dis-
inhibition. Participants must inhibit the dominant, reading response to
perform the less-practiced naming of colors. People who have problems
inhibiting themselves often do more poorly on this task. For example,
72 Understanding Marijuana

children with attention deficit disorder and adults with alcoholism show
problems with this task (Gorenstein, 1987; Gorenstein, Mammato, &
Sandy, 1989). This interference with color naming has increased during
marijuana intoxication in some studies (e.g., Hooker & Jones, 1987), but
not others (Evans et al., 1973; Chait & Pierri, 1992). Notably, the studies
that reveal no effect often have smaller samples, which decreased the
chances of revealing a marijuana-induced deficit. The positive results sug-
gest that marijuana impairs the ability to inhibit responses. People who
have recently smoked cannabis may do a poor job of inhibiting in other
domains, too. They may overeat, have ill-advised sexual encounters, blurt
inappropriate words, and fail to resist other temptations.

VIGILANCE Studies of vigilance or sustained attention usually require ex-

tended periods of concentration on an exceedingly simple, dull task.
These studies prove important because many users claim that their work
on repetitive chores improves during intoxication (Carter, 1980). One
task, the continuous performance test, requires watching a series of digits
show up on a screen and hitting a key when the number 8 appears. It is
barely more interesting than watching water evaporate. Marijuana does
not impair or improve performance on this task (e.g., Vachon, Sulkowski,
& Rich, 1974). This measure of vigilance may be too easy to reveal any
changes. Studies only required up to 7 minutes of performance; perhaps
deficits or improvements may appear after longer durations.
In another typical study of vigilance, participants watched a circle of
neon bulbs. The bulbs lit, one at a time, in succession. Occasionally, one
light in the circle was skipped. Participants were required to press a but-
ton any time a light was skipped. They performed this task for an hour,
which must have been about as interesting as a documentary on how to
make mud. Perhaps this task is comparable to certain forms of employ-
ment. After smoking marijuana, people tended to miss the skipped lights
more often. Both the intoxicated and the unintoxicated people had more
misses as time went on, but the rate of decline was worse after smoking
marijuana. This result suggests that marijuana intoxication may decrease
vigilance on long, dull tasks, contradicting anecdotal reports of improve-
ment (Sharma & Moskowitz, 1974). Further work might examine if peo-
ple develop tolerance to this effect of marijuana. Financial incentives for
better performance would probably decrease errors during intoxication,
too. These investigations might reveal the seriousness of marijuana’s im-
pact on vigilance.
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 73

Probably Affected Tasks

Intoxication likely impairs perception, reading aloud, arithmetic, com-

plex reaction time, and certain aspects of memory. These effects ap-
peared at standard doses even in small samples.

PERCEPTION Marijuana intoxication alters the senses. People report

changes in taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Laboratory data
confirm some of these reports. At least 10 studies show that smoking
marijuana alters time perception. Apparently, intoxicated individuals
experience time as passing more slowly. Subjective reports suggest that
events seem to take longer, as if a few seconds feel like a minute. For
example, during intoxication, a single recording album may seem to take
hours to play (Tart, 1971). Laboratory studies confirm that intoxicated
individuals perceive brief intervals as markedly longer than they are in
reality. After smoking marijuana, people asked to wait 30 seconds think
that they have waited more than 30 seconds. Intoxicated people asked
to signal when they think 30 seconds have passed often respond after
only 20 seconds (Chait & Pierri, 1992). Perceptions of space also
change. After smoking marijuana, people report that the distance be-
tween objects seems to increase (Tart, 1971). At least one study using
a driving simulator confirms that marijuana intoxication alters the per-
ception of distance. Intoxicated people driving a simulator tended to
overestimate how far they traveled (Bech, Rafaelsen, & Rafaelsen,
Cannabis intoxication also appears to alter vision. After smoking mar-
ijuana, people do not distinguish colors well. They show problems dis-
criminating among shades of blue (Adams, Brown, Haegerstrom-Portnoy,
& Flom, 1976). They also process cues for three dimensions differently,
making it more difficult for them to enjoy certain illusions of depth (Em-
rich et al., 1991). Intoxicated individuals appear less able to identify fig-
ures hidden within pictures, too (Pearl, Domino, & Rennick, 1973). Be-
cause accurate processing of information requires accurate initial
perceptions, these impairments may underlie a number of cognitive dis-
tortions associated with marijuana intoxication. For example, any test
that requires quick responding to specific colors will show impairment
simply because colors are not perceived correctly. Any further processing
of the colors may actually remain intact, but because the initial input is
faulty, all subsequent processing appears incorrect. For example, this im-
74 Understanding Marijuana

paired perception of colors may have contributed to altered performance

on the Stroop color-naming task.

READING ABILITY In a series of studies, participants read unfamiliar pas-

sages of difficult text forward or backward while hearing their own voices
though earphones. The researchers made the task more difficult by em-
ploying a manipulation known as delayed auditory feedback. As they
read, the participants heard their own words played a quarter of a second
after they said them. This manipulation parallels some of the annoying
qualities of being mocked. The texts employed in these studies were also
quite complex. Some studies asked participants to read a section of Ar-
istotle’s work aloud under these conditions (Manno, Kiplinger, Haine,
Bennett, & Forney, 1970). Marijuana intoxication consistently impaired
reading aloud under these circumstances. Intoxicated individuals took
longer to read the text and made more mistakes (Chait & Pierri, 1992).
These data suggest that cognitive abilities are not at their peak during
intoxication. Their practical implications remain less clear. Anyone plan-
ning a public reading of The Nichomachean Ethics should probably avoid

ARITHMETIC Marijuana impairs mathematical performance. In a dozen

studies intoxicated participants tried to add or subtract a series of digits.
Most research showed marijuana-induced deficits, particularly for the
more complex tasks. People asked to count backward from 100 by 7s
tend to perform worse after smoking marijuana. People who had to per-
form more complex addition and subtraction problems also showed def-
icits when high (e.g., Casswell, 1975; Casswell & Marks, 1973). These
data further support the idea that cannabis intoxication decreases mental
abilities, particularly the attention associated with computation. People
may develop tolerance to these effects, but no studies have addressed
this question. Obviously, anyone who has smoked marijuana and must
compute a tip or balance a checkbook should wait until intoxication
wears off or rely on a sober friend.

COMPLEX REACTION TIME Although simple reaction times do not al-

ways appear impaired during marijuana intoxication, as tasks grow more
complicated, performance declines. Complex reaction time tasks usually
require pressing different buttons in response to different events. For
example, experimenters might ask participants to press one button in
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 75

response to a green light, and another in response to a red light. The

tasks reveal different marijuana-induced impairments. Sometimes intox-
icated participants press the wrong button more often (Low, Klonoff, &
Marcus, 1973), though not always (Peeke, Jones, & Stone, 1976). Their
reaction times also increase. Some studies show small increases in reac-
tion time, roughly 10% (Borg et al., 1975), but others show intoxicated
participants take up to 50% longer to make the correct response (Block
& Wittenborn, 1986). Generally, the more complex the task, the worse
the cannabis-induced impairment (Clark & Nakashima, 1968; Chait &
Pierri, 1992). People do appear to develop tolerance to this effect with
repeated practice while intoxicated (Peeke et al., 1976).

MEMORY Although memory for material learned prior to intoxication

often remains intact after smoking marijuana, other aspects of memory
decline dramatically. Memory problems associated with intoxication usu-
ally appear when researchers present a series of words to people after
they have consumed cannabis. Participants then wait briefly and view a
second list of words. Some of the words on this second list appeared on
the first; participants then guess which ones. The ability to recognize the
correct words is known as recognition memory. Intoxicated participants
are very good at identifying the words they saw previously (Miller, Cor-
nett, & Wikler, 1979; Miller et al., 1977). Nevertheless, they also claim
to recognize words that actually were not on the original list (Dornbush,
1974). These mistakes are known as memory intrusions. Thus, aspects
of recognition memory may suffer during intoxication.
These recognition memory problems suggest that marijuana may im-
pair the ability to separate relevant and irrelevant stimuli. An irrelevant
word, one that did not appear on the previous list, seems as familiar as
relevant words that did appear on a previous list. These results for words
do not generalize to all practical aspects of memory. For example, eye-
witness testimony does not appear impaired. Marijuana intoxication had
little negative impact on the recognition of important information rele-
vant to an event (Yuille, Tollestrup, Marxsen, Porter, & Herve-Hugues,
1998). Perhaps cannabis has less impact on memory for meaningful
events like those important to eyewitness testimony, and more impact
on memory for meaningless stimuli like lists of words.
Another type of memory, free recall, shows definite impairment dur-
ing intoxication. In these studies, participants usually write down as many
words as they can from a previously presented list. Thus, they must gen-
76 Understanding Marijuana

erate the words rather than simply recognize if a given word appeared
before. This task proves more difficult than the recognition memory ex-
ercise. Intoxicated people invariably remember fewer words (e.g., Dorn-
bush, et al., 1971). They also tend to include words that were never on
the list (Miller & Cornett, 1978). These memory intrusions are quite
common after smoking cannabis (Chait & Pierri, 1992). They support
the idea that marijuana intoxication impairs the ability to separate rele-
vant from irrelevant stimuli.

Summary of Acute Effects

In general, marijuana intoxication has little impact on learning simple

tasks or remembering information mastered prior to ingesting the drug.
Intoxicated people can probably still become proficient at new, easy
skills. They can probably recall events that occurred before they smoked
marijuana, including important information from the distant past. The
drug has produced inconsistent effects on simple reaction time, disinhi-
bition, and vigilance. Sometimes the drug slows reaction time, makes
people unable to restrain their first impulse, and prevents them from
sticking with long, dull tasks. Marijuana intoxication clearly impairs as-
pects of memory, perception, reading, arithmetic, and complex reaction
time. After smoking cannabis, people cannot memorize new lists of
words, distinguish among similar colors, read complicated passages aloud,
subtract strings of numbers, or respond quickly to different lights by
pressing different buttons. Any tasks like these that require elaborate,
precise, or rapid thinking should probably not be performed during in-

Effects of Chronic Marijuana Consumption

Acute marijuana intoxication alters thought and memory. Many re-

searchers have investigated the effects of chronic use of marijuana on
these cognitive functions, too. If a single dose of the drug leads to im-
pairments, perhaps consistent use would lead to comparable deficits,
even after intoxication has worn off. Most human studies compare people
who smoked marijuana daily for many years to others who report never
using the drug. Although much of this work reveals no gross impairment
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 77

in chronic users, some studies report lower test scores or deviant brain
waves in those who smoke daily for extended periods. Interpretations
and critiques of these studies vary with their results. Studies that find
that chronic smokers perform as well as others are often criticized for
having inadequate samples or insensitive tests. Critics of studies that re-
veal deficits in chronic smokers also focus on the people studied and the
tests employed. A review of these critiques appears first, followed by
detailed summaries of the relevant studies. In general, despite the many
critiques of the research so far, chronic marijuana consumption does not
appear to create gross neuropsychological impairments. Regular use for
many users does, however, lead to deficits on highly sensitive tests.

Overview of Critiques of Studies That Reveal

Few or No Deficits

Many researchers report no differences between people who never use

drugs and unintoxicated, chronic users of cannabis. These results suggest
that chronic marijuana exposure has little permanent impact on thought
and memory. Critics of these studies emphasize that genuine differences
may exist, but they failed to appear for several reasons. These reasons
relate to both the participants studied and the tests employed. The issues
related to participants concern samples that are too small to reveal dif-
ferences, biased sampling that includes only the most competent mari-
juana smokers, and contaminated group membership that allows smokers
to claim they have not used the drug. Issues related to the tests usually
concern their lack of sensitivity to subtle cognitive problems.


INSUFFICIENT SAMPLE SIZES The first critique of studies that reveal no

changes in cognitive function in chronic marijuana smokers concerns the
number of people studied. Some research that fails to show marijuana-
related cognitive deficits may not employ enough participants. Research
cannot reveal effects without a sufficient number of data points. Some
investigators who report no effect of chronic use assessed as few as 10
people (e.g., Schaeffer, Andrysiak, & Ungerleider, 1981). Detecting large
differences between users and nonusers likely requires at least 25 from
each group (Cohen, 1990). The obvious solution to this problem is to
study more people.
78 Understanding Marijuana

BIASED SAMPLING The second critique concerns the characteristics of the

participants. First, some investigators of marijuana’s effects sample from
college or medical students. Because everyone in the sample has to meet
certain entrance requirements, only those who have not experienced ex-
treme negative consequences from the drug ever appear in the study.
These select groups may give the impression that marijuana causes no
harm. In fact, those who were harmed by the drug may never participate
in the research because they are not enrolled in college or medical school.
Even studies that do not focus on students may fail to sample from the
people who are most impaired from marijuana. Volunteers for these
studies may not be the most troubled users. Volunteers for research often
differ from people who are unwilling to participate, particularly in studies
related to drugs (Strohmetz, Alterman, & Walter, 1990). Individuals who
experience genuine problems may not prove particularly eager to per-
form tasks in a laboratory, even for pay. Perhaps many studies sampled
only those chronic users who were not experiencing negative conse-
quences. Thus, the representativeness of these samples remains un-
This critique is difficult to combat. Many investigators emphasize that
their participants have extensive use of the drug for long periods. Some
studies employ participants who smoked marijuana daily for over 10
years. Thus, they qualify as the exact people appropriate for study. An-
other strategy for reaching the most impaired users requires visiting them
in their homes. This way, people who may show more impairment or
little motivation to visit a laboratory will still appear in the study. Given
the illegal status of the drug, this approach may prove quite cumbersome.
Nevertheless, Bowman and Pihl (1973) visited some participants in their
homes in Jamaica and still found no cannabis-related deficits on a number
of cognitive tasks.

CONTAMINATED GROUP MEMBERSHIP Another critique of studies that

fail to find differences concerns the validity of the reports of use. Given
the social and legal attitudes against the drug, perhaps some users mis-
represent themselves as nonusers. If marijuana genuinely caused a deficit,
these incorrectly categorized smokers could lower the average score of
the nonusers, making them seem no different from the users. In contrast,
in an effort to earn cash through participation, some nonusers might
claim to use, potentially altering the scores in this group. A recent study
employed urine screens to combat this problem and found 12% of re-
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 79

ported levels of use could not be confirmed (Pope & Yurgelun-Todd,

1996). Thus, 12% of the users may have been nonusers or vice versa.
This misclassification could seriously alter research results. Urine screens
may serve as the best way to avoid contaminated group membership.

INSENSITIVE TESTS The number and characteristics of the participants

are not the only aspects of these studies criticized. The tests employed
often are too simple to detect marijuana’s negative effects. The drug’s
effects may only appear on more demanding tests. Imagine a cognitive
task that required reciting the alphabet. A long and extensive history of
cannabis consumption could not impair such an effortless task. Users and
nonusers would perform equally well, suggesting no negative impact
from marijuana. Yet even a demented person could probably perform
this simple exercise. Complex tasks may have a better chance of revealing
any cannabis-induced harm. Researchers can counter this critique by in-
cluding difficult tasks. These investigators may also argue that subtle dif-
ferences on extremely complex tests may not translate to any practical
implications. Difficult cognitive tasks often require discriminating among
similar stimuli and responding as quickly as possible. Except for air traffic
controllers and fans of video games, it is unclear how many people ac-
tually use these skills in daily life. Nevertheless, these tasks prove most
sensitive to the subtle changes in brain functioning that may occur after
chronic marijuana consumption.
Thus, accurate interpretations of studies that reveal no deficits must
consider insufficient sample sizes, biased sampling, contaminated group
membership, and insensitive tests. Any study that reveals no deficits as-
sociated with chronic marijuana consumption must address these cri-

Studies That Found Few Marijuana-Related Deficits

One of the first studies to support no marijuana-induced cognitive deficits

examined 30 using and 24 nonusing Jamaican men (Bowman & Pihl,
1973). Testing occurred in many environments, including homes, huts,
and public areas. This mobile approach to testing helped ensure that even
the most impaired individuals could participate. Chronic users had
smoked an average of 20 joints a day for at least 10 years. Thus, the
sampling does not appear particularly biased toward unimpaired users.
The control group included nonusers who were religiously opposed to
80 Understanding Marijuana

marijuana. Informants confirmed their abstinence, but no urine screens

or hair samples provided additional evidence. Thus, some controls may
have actually been users, though it seems unlikely. The assessment in-
cluded many tests of reaction time, disinhibition, learning, perception,
and memory. These tests often show impairment in chronic alcoholics;
some have also proven sensitive to marijuana’s acute effects. Not one of
the 15 measures revealed marijuana-related deficits. The investigators
concluded that chronic marijuana consumption had little impact on cog-
nitive abilities.
A comparable study performed in Costa Rica also found no differences
between 41 users and 41 nonusers. Participants had an extensive history
with the drug, smoking an average of 9 joints a day for 17 years. No
biochemical analyses confirmed their status. Users may have claimed to
belong to the nonuser group, but such deception may prove unlikely in
Costa Rica. The social sanctions against marijuana are not extreme; they
were particularly minor in the 1970s, when this study began. For ex-
ample, certain bistros in the area openly permitted using the drug (Satz,
Fletcher, & Sutker, 1976). Participants completed a large assessment bat-
tery, including the entire Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (an IQ test),
numerous tests of memory and psychomotor speed, and a learning task.
Many of these tasks have revealed impairments in alcoholics. No signif-
icant differences appeared between cannabis users and nonusers. If mar-
ijuana created a cognitive deficit, these tests were insensitive to it.
Several other studies also failed to find cannabis-linked cognitive
changes, but each had potential weaknesses. One project tested 10 mem-
bers of a church that views marijuana as a sacrament. These users smoked
2 to 4 ounces of a mixture of marijuana and tobacco each day for an
average of 7.4 years. They showed no below-average scores on over a
dozen tests of intelligence and neuropsychological functioning (Schaeffer,
et al., 1981). The small sample size may preclude finding any meaningful
differences. Given the absence of a control group and measures of func-
tioning prior to cannabis consumption, the study cannot reveal if these
people may have scored higher if they had not used the drug. Another
study revealed no differences between 10 users and 10 nonusers on over
two dozen tests related to intelligence and motor performance (Carlin &
Trupin, 1977). Use was extensive; participants had smoked daily for an
average of 5 years. Nevertheless, the tests were not particularly sensitive
and the sample size was too small to ensure that the absence of any effect
could generalize to other cannabis smokers.
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 81

Additional work also found no marijuana-related deficits, but had po-

tentially biased samples and users with less-extensive drug histories. In a
study of Dartmouth seniors, 14 marijuana users, 14 LSD users, and 14
controls completed over two dozen neuropsychological and intelligence
tests. Marijuana users did not differ from controls. Incidentally, LSD
users differed only on one neuropsychological test (Culver & King, 1974).
The absence of an effect may mean little given the purportedly high level
of cognitive functioning at this institution. Anyone who showed impair-
ment from the drug might not have remained enrolled in school or may
not have been admitted in the first place. In addition, the marijuana
group smoked less than twice a week. The tests were not particularly
challenging, either. Thus, the absence of differences may stem from a
number of reasons.
A different study of 29 using and 29 nonusing medical students, which
revealed no differences on 7 of 8 measures of memory and motor skill,
suffered from comparable critiques (Grant, Rochford, Fleming, & Stun-
kard, 1973). Medical students are a relatively intelligent, motivated, com-
pulsive group. People who suffer from marijuana-induced troubles likely
could not gain admission to medical school. The users smoked only 3
times per month for 4 years, too. Another study of 26 using and 25
nonusing medical students, which revealed no differences on six neuro-
psychological measures, had some of the same limitations (Rochford,
Grant, & LaVigne, 1977). Users had smoked at least 50 times over an
average of 3.7 years, suggesting that many may have smoked less than
twice a month. Thus, studies of college and medical students reveal no
marijuana-related deficits, but the samples may not represent all users.
They may have better cognitive abilities in general, as well as less exten-
sive histories of cannabis use. Researchers may inadvertently exclude im-
paired users by sampling from students.
One of the largest and most recent studies of marijuana’s impact on
cognitive functioning looked at changes in mental functioning over 11
years in approximately 1,300 residents of Baltimore (Lyketsos, Garrett,
Liang, & Anthony, 1999). A sample this large is certainly beyond cri-
tique. Participants were drawn from an enormous epidemiological study
of cognitive decline over time. Thus, the sample was not biased to in-
clude an inordinate number of well educated or particularly impaired
individuals. The classification of marijuana use was based entirely on self-
report. Many users may have claimed to abstain, potentially minimizing
any group differences. The most important critique of this study concerns
82 Understanding Marijuana

the test employed. Participants completed the Mini-Mental State Exam,

which, as the authors assert, may be too simple to detect subtle impair-
ments. This brief screening measure detects only the most severe im-
pairments. Easier items include “What is today’s date?” and “Where are
you?” Even people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can answer
some of these questions correctly.

A Few Differences Deemed Anomalous

Some researchers found a few small differences but concluded that they
were spurious for methodological reasons. A study of 60 Jamaican men
(30 smokers and 30 controls) used 47 measures of IQ, memory, and
motor speed; only 4 showed significant results. Two or three could be
expected by chance, as explained below in the discussion of multiple
tests performed in studies that reveal differences. Oddly enough, one of
these tests suggested better memory functioning in the smokers. Users
smoked daily for an average of 17.5 years. The study required a brief stay
in the hospital, which may have deterred some of the most impaired
users, but the investigators suggested that the free physical exam that
accompanied participation may have actually encouraged some users.
The tests employed may not have been particularly sensitive, but they
did reveal deficits in alcoholics in other studies. These researchers con-
cluded that the evidence for cannabis-induced cognitive impairment was
poor (Rubin & Comitas, 1975).
A later study performed in India compared 30 users and 50 nonusers
and found only 1 statistically significant memory impairment on 15 dif-
ferent tests. Participants used cannabis an average of 11 times per month
for over 5 years, suggesting that use was appropriately extensive. Nev-
ertheless, the tests may not have been difficult enough to reveal
marijuana-related changes (Ray, Prabhu, Mohan, Nath, & Neki, 1979).
In summary, quite a bit of research reveals no gross cognitive impair-
ments related to chronic consumption of marijuana. Nevertheless, these
studies may have biased, small samples, users with less-extensive drug
histories, users who claim to be nonusers in the control group, or tests
that require less skill for sufficient performance. Despite these drawbacks,
the idea that chronic use of marijuana does not create outrageous neu-
ropsychological problems does receive some support. Other studies that
use more complex tasks do suggest marijuana may create cognitive prob-
lems, but they suffer from a different set of methodological problems.
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 83

Overview of Critiques of Studies That Reveal Deficits in

Chronic Users

A review of potential limitations can help the interpretation of studies

that reveal deficits in chronic cannabis users. Any deficits found in mar-
ijuana smokers may serve as evidence that the drug impairs function, but
other explanations remain tenable. Similar to the critiques of studies that
find no differences between groups, critics of the research that reveals
deficits generally focus on the samples and tests employed. For example,
the chronic users may have differed from the nonusers prior to ever
smoking marijuana. In addition, the chronic users may have used drugs
other than marijuana that might create these impairments. Participants
also may have been intoxicated during testing, transforming the study of
chronic effects into a study of acute effects. In addition, the multitude
of tests employed in many studies may have created some differences
simply due to chance. Finally, some effects may reach statistical signifi-
cance but remain too small to be particularly meaningful. Each of these
critiques appears in detail below.


DIFFERENCES PRIOR TO MARIJUANA USE Critics of studies that reveal

disparities between chronic users and nonusers emphasize a key point
about participants. People who choose to smoke marijuana daily for years
may be different from those who do not. These differences may have
been present long before they started using the drug. Under these cir-
cumstances, lower scores found in smokers might not stem from mari-
juana use. The differences may arise because the groups were unequal
for some reason that preceded marijuana use. The best technique for
combating this criticism would require randomly assigning people to one
of two groups. One group would smoke marijuana every day for years;
the other would abstain. This approach has some obvious ethical and
practical problems. An alternative strategy requires finding chronic users
and nonusers whose cognitive abilities had been assessed before any of
them started smoking marijuana. One study has successfully adopted this
approach by matching users and nonusers on tests of cognitive function-
ing that they took in the fourth grade. This study established deficits
associated with heavy, chronic use that do not appear to stem from dif-
ferences that existed before participants started smoking (Block & Gho-
84 Understanding Marijuana

neim, 1993). Many other studies lack this careful control. Future research
might provide thorough assessments on a large number of young children
and then assess cognitive functioning years later, after a small proportion
of them become chronic users.

POLYDRUG CONSUMPTION Differences between chronic users of can-

nabis and nonusers may not arise from marijuana itself. Instead, the users
may have consumed other drugs that created impairments. Those who
smoke marijuana often use more of other drugs (Earleywine & New-
comb, 1997). Perhaps any identified problems stem from these other
substances and not from marijuana. For example, a frequently cited study
that reveals deficits in hashish consumers reported more alcohol and
opium consumption in the users than in the nonusers (Soueif, 1976).
The alcohol and opium, rather than the marijuana, may have created
cognitive changes (Fletcher & Satz, 1977). Efficient, ethical ways to com-
bat this critique prove difficult to identify. Extensive, anonymous self-
reports may help separate those who use cannabis from those who use
other drugs (LaBrie & Earleywine, 2000). Urine screens or hair samples
may also help investigators select participants, who use only marijuana
or no drugs at all. Focusing on people who use only cannabis may help
establish its role in cognitive functioning.
Animal research has had better luck minimizing the possible con-
founding effect of other drugs. The low rate of substance misuse among
primates and rodents permits conclusions about cannabis that remain
uncontaminated by polydrug use. Unfortunately, these studies have other
methodological problems, including relatively brief exposures to the drug
(a year or less) and small sample sizes. Despite these drawbacks, they
still reveal a few deficits associated with chronic use. One study found
decreased maze learning in rats after 3 months of exposure, but the abil-
ity returned after a month of abstinence, (Nakamura da Silva, Concilio,
Wilkinson, & Masur, 1991). Other tests of chronic exposure in rats found
learning deficits that did not improve, even after months of abstinence
(e.g., Stiglick & Kalant, 1982a, b). These animal studies offer compelling
evidence that marijuana, and not some other drug, creates problems in
learning and memory.

INTOXICATION DURING TESTING Despite researchers’ requests and fi-

nancial incentives, chronic daily users may remain unwilling to abstain
from cannabis on the day of an experiment. People who smoke marijuana
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 85

every day for years may be unlikely to stop simply because a scientist
wants them to draw lines, arrange blocks, and memorize words. Without
this abstinence, the comparison between chronic users and nonusers es-
sentially becomes a study of intoxication. Given the data on acute effects,
studies of chronic effects must clearly occur when all participants are no
longer under the influence of the drug. Otherwise, any deficits in chronic
users could arise from their current intoxication instead of any impact of
long-term consumption. Ensuring this abstinence is extremely difficult
when studying people who smoke daily. Inpatient stays in a hospital may
help solve this problem. Participants would have to agree to remain in
the hospital and avoid drugs for a specified period prior to testing. At
least one recent study used this strategy and still found deficits associated
with chronic smoking (Pope & Yurgelun-Todd, 1996).

MULTITUDE OF TESTS PERFORMED Another issue in the interpretation

of these studies concerns the number of tasks given to the participants
and the number of statistical tests that investigators perform. The more
tasks employed and the more tests performed, the higher the probability
that differences will appear by chance. Every statistical test has a possi-
bility of error. If users and nonusers complete 100 different tests, they
may differ on some simply by accident. The more tests, the greater the
likelihood of such accidents. Initial studies of cannabis’s cognitive effects
cast a wide net in search of impaired functioning. This approach, how-
ever, increased the probability of finding differences by chance. For ex-
ample, a classic study that showed marijuana-induced harm performed
almost 100 statistical tests (Soueif, 1976).
Most research journals report differences as statistically significant only
if they are big enough to be unlikely to have occurred by chance. If
nonusers perform 50% better than users on a test, the odds of the dif-
ference occurring by chance may be small. But if the same number of
participants differs by only 20%, 10%, or 1%, the probability of the dif-
ference arising by accident increases. Convention dictates that statistically
significant differences must be large enough to only occur by chance less
than 5 times out of 100. (The ubiquitous “p ⬍.05” appears in research
when findings satisfy this convention.) Nevertheless, 5 times out of 100,
or 1 in 20 of such findings may be anomalies. Hypotheses focused on a
few key cognitive functions can help minimize this problem by mini-
mizing the number of tests performed and thus the potential number of
chance findings.
86 Understanding Marijuana


last critique of these studies concerns the magnitude and meaning of
statistically significant effects. With big enough samples, very small dif-
ferences in test performance can be statistically significant. The meaning
of such small effects remains debated. For example, a frequently cited
study showed that urban Egyptian users had worse memory for numbers
than nonusers. Although the groups did differ statistically, the nonusers
recalled, on average, 2.94 digits. The users remembered 2.75 digits
(Soueif, 1976). This average difference is less than a quarter of a word.
Critics find these small effects meaningless (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).
Studies that reveal marijuana-related deficits can prove most compelling
if the impairments are large and involve important aspects of thought
and memory.

Studies Showing Marijuana-Related Differences

Accurate interpretations of studies that reveal deficits must consider dif-

ferences prior to use, polydrug consumption, intoxication during testing,
multiple tests employed, and reporting of small or inconsequential dif-
ferences. Any study that reveals deficits associated with chronic mari-
juana consumption must address these critiques. Generally, these studies
suggest that long-term use of cannabis does not lead to overt signs of
gross intellectual impairment. Nevertheless, subtle problems on difficult
tasks do arise.
One of the first and largest sets of studies assessed over 1,600 Egyptian
prisoners (Soueif, 1976). Ten of 16 measures of cognitive abilities
showed differences, but two (time and distance estimation) revealed bet-
ter performance in the smokers. The most differences appeared for the
educated people. Users and nonusers with at least a high school education
differed on more tests than those with less schooling. The critiques listed
above apply to this series of studies. They did not report any measures
of cognitive functioning prior to use, failing to rule out potential differ-
ences between users and nonusers before they consumed cannabis. Many
of the smokers also used opium, which may have contributed to their
lower scores (Fletcher & Satz, 1977). Nothing prevented the users from
smoking immediately prior to testing, but being imprisoned may have
minimized this confound. The tests were not particularly numerous, but
some of the statistically significant differences remained small. For ex-
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 87

ample, as mentioned, users and nonusers differed significantly at recalling

numbers, but by less than one digit (Soueif, 1976).
Another series of studies performed in India also revealed cannabis-
related deficits. A comparison of 23 users and 11 controls revealed poorer
functioning on measures of IQ, motor speed, and time perception. Par-
ticipants completed 8 cognitive tests, 6 of which showed differences,
suggesting that the results were not likely chance anomalies. Also, the
differences were large and potentially meaningful (Cohen, 1990), partic-
ularly on the measures of IQ (Wig & Varma, 1977). Yet some of the
standard critiques still apply. Cognitive differences prior to use were un-
known. Consumption of other drugs was not reported. Only some of the
participants were hospitalized to ensure sobriety during testing. All these
results may stem from differences in cognitive functioning that existed
before the participants ever began using the drug. Differences also may
arise from current, acute intoxication in some people.
Another study performed in India on 25 smokers, 25 bhang drinkers,
and 25 controls revealed significant differences on time perception, mem-
ory, size and time estimation, motor speed, and reaction time. (Bhang is
a beverage made from marijuana, milk, sugar, and spices.) The investi-
gators did not report cognitive abilities prior to use. Participants differed
little in alcohol consumption. The study did not report assessments of
other drug use. The researchers claim that participants did not consume
cannabis for 12 hours prior to testing, but the techniques employed to
ensure this abstinence remain unclear.
Participants in this study completed only 10 tests, 8 of which revealed
differences. Some deficits remained small. For example, a memory test
that required recognizing pictures differed by less than one picture. Nev-
ertheless, other effects were quite large. Reaction time for ganja smokers
was twice as long as for controls (Menhiratta, Wig, & Verma, 1978). The
measure of reaction time, however, was quite unusual. Most reaction
time measures require pressing a button as quickly as possible after seeing
a light or hearing a tone. The measure in this study asked participants to
report the first idea that came to mind when they heard a word. The
meaning of a slow response on this task is unclear. Smokers could have
responded more slowly for many reasons unrelated to cognitive abilities.
The failure to control for previous cognitive abilities, polydrug use, and
intoxication warrants cautious interpretation.
An intriguing 10-year follow-up of some of these participants (19
88 Understanding Marijuana

smokers, 11 bhang drinkers, and 15 controls) replicated the memory,

motor, and reaction time findings. Although previous cognitive abilities
and polydrug use remained uncontrolled, a hospital stay helped ensure
sobriety during testing this time. The same number of tests were em-
ployed. The authors failed to present the data in a way that permits the
computation of the exact size of the effects, but some appear potentially
meaningful. For example, the controls did twice as well as the bhang
drinkers on remembering digits in reverse order. The same curious re-
action time measure also showed great differences between users and
nonusers. Nevertheless, we do not know if the groups differed in abilities
before they started using cannabis and have no evidence that the use of
other drugs did not create the deficits.
Another long-term follow-up study found differences in a sample that
had previously not shown any marijuana-induced changes in cognitive
functioning. The investigators tracked down the participants from the
Costa Rican study that initially revealed no differences (Satz, et al., 1976;
see the section in this chapter entitled “Studies That Found Few
Marijuana-Related Deficits”). They then administered the same battery
and some new measures. These investigators found differences on 3 new
tests. Users and nonusers showed comparable scores on the same tests
they had completed 12 years earlier. Their scores had deteriorated little
in the 12 years. The three new tests, however, showed superior perfor-
mance in nonusers. One test tapped retrieval from memory; the other
two required sustained attention and concentration. We do not know if
the groups differed in these abilities prior to using cannabis. They did
not differ in alcohol or tobacco use, but we do not know about other
drugs. Investigators asked participants to abstain from alcohol and mari-
juana the day before the test, but adherence to these recommendations
was not assessed. The tests were numerous, and differences were small
(Page, Fletcher, & True, 1988).
An additional follow-up began 5 years later. The data revealed group
difference only in older participants. These people were about 45 years
old and had smoked cannabis for an average of 34 years. They completed
4 tests of memory and 8 of attention. Two memory tests and two atten-
tion tests revealed differences. Yet, differences prior to use remain un-
known. Those who chose to smoke regularly may have had attentional
or memory deficits prior to ever using the drug. Urine screens confirmed
user status as well as an absence of use of other drugs and no intoxication
during testing. The effects were in the medium to large range. These data
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 89

suggest that long-term use creates specific memory and attention prob-
lems, but differences prior to ever using the drug cannot be completely
ruled out.
Although many studies of college students have shown no marijuana-
related differences (Culver & King, 1974; Grant et al., 1973; Rochford
et al., 1977), two that used different tasks revealed some memory prob-
lems. A study of 25 nonusing undergraduates and 25 who smoked at
least twice a week suggested that marijuana interferes with transferring
information into long-term memory. We do not know their level of abil-
ity before they started using cannabis or their use of other drugs. Partic-
ipants reported that they were not high, but abstinence was not con-
firmed. There were no other tests reported, and the effects qualified as
large (Gianutsos & Litwack, 1976). Another study of 26 college students
who had used daily for at least 6 months and 37 who had never smoked
marijuana revealed large deficits in memory and learning. These partici-
pants did not differ on drinking habits, but use of other drugs was not
assessed. The investigators repeated the experiment with 21 users and
18 controls and found comparable marijuana-related problems in mem-
ory. This time, those who used other drugs were not allowed to partic-
ipate (Entin & Goldzung, 1973). Again we have no knowledge of cog-
nitive ability prior to the initiation of use, and intoxication during testing
was not controlled. The effects were in the medium to large range.

Superior Performance in Users

A couple of other studies revealed the unexpected superior performance

of users over nonusers. Results like these have never inspired anyone to
recommend cannabis as a way to enhance cognitive abilities, but they do
cast doubt on the idea that chronic marijuana use is detrimental. One of
the first reports of superior performance came from an examination of
11 nonusers and 11 people who smoked 3 to 5 times per week for an
average of 4 years. The groups did not differ on over a dozen cognitive
tests. The users performed better on one test of general cognitive func-
tioning, but the large number of analyses suggest cautious interpretation.
The same researchers found superior performance by users on 8 of 11
cognitive tests in another sample (Weckowicz, Collier, & Spreng, 1977).
The superior performance of marijuana users may stem, in part, from
the nature of the measures. Unlike the tests employed in most studies,
these focused on originality and novel thinking rather than speedy pro-
90 Understanding Marijuana

cessing of information. These data do not, however, mean marijuana

smokers are more creative than others. The groups may have differed in
originality prior to use. Polydrug use was rampant among the smokers,
raising the possibility that another drug may have created these effects.
The users may have been high during testing. The researchers used many
tests, but some effects were in the medium to large range. The biggest
critique, however, involves the recruitment of participants. This study
did not involve a random sample of users and nonusers. Instead, users
supplied the names of other users to participate. This process may have
biased results. If one creative user recommended a bunch of creative
friends, the results could easily suggest chronic use led to superior per-
formance erroneously.

Successful Control for Level of Functioning Prior to Use

In one of the few studies to control for cognitive abilities before onset of
drug use, investigators compared 144 users and 72 nonusers matched on
the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which they had taken in fourth grade. The
investigators compared heavy (7 times per week), intermediate (5 or 6
times per week), and light (1 to 4 times per week) users to the nonusers.
The heavy users had smoked for an average of 6.2 years. Participants
completed 17 measures of memory, learning, and motor skills. Nonusers
performed better than heavy users on 4 tests: one of quantitative skill,
one of verbal expression, and two measures of memory for words that
are easy to imagine.
The light and intermediate users were indistinguishable from nonusers
on all but one test. Unexpectedly, intermediate users performed better
than nonusers on a test of concept formation. (This test requires looking
at pictures of two families. Pictures of new people then appear and par-
ticipants must guess which family they belong to.) There were no other
significant differences among groups. Heavy users performed as well as
nonusers on 13 tests (Block & Ghoneim, 1993). Despite admirable con-
trol for differences prior to use, consumption of other drugs differed
dramatically among groups. Investigators requested abstinence during
testing but did not ensure it. Participants did perform many tests, but all
effects were large (including the superior performance of the interme-
diate group on concept formation). Unfortunately, the effects may have
stemmed from intoxication. This study offers potential support for
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 91

marijuana-induced impairment and also may imply that intermediate and

light use does not create cognitive deficits.

Comparing Light and Heavy Users

One group of investigators reasoned that those who try marijuana may
differ from those who do not on a number of variables. These inherent
differences may contaminate results. Therefore, this research team com-
pared 65 chronic users and 64 light users in the search for marijuana-
related cognitive problems. Chronic users smoked at least 22 days in the
previous 30; light users smoked 9 or fewer days. Chronic users performed
worse on 2 of 7 measures, including a neuropsychological test of disin-
hibition (the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test) and a test of learning, rec-
ognition, and recall (the California Verbal Learning Test). These effects
were in the small to medium range. For example, on one measure of
verbal recall, the groups differed by less than a word.
A few other effects appeared when the investigators examined men
and women separately. Among the men, heavy and light users differed
on some subscales of tests related to spatial memory. Heavier-using men
performed worse on the recall of pictures. The groups also differed on
the Stroop, the color-naming test of disinhibition. Another effect ap-
peared when the investigators divided participants into groups based on
IQ. Heavy and light users with low scores on verbal intelligence differed
on verbal fluency (Pope & Yurgelun-Todd, 1996).
The usual critiques apply to this study. We do not know about dif-
ferences between these groups prior to their use of marijuana. Differ-
ences in the use of other drugs, however, was minimized based on self-
reports and the urine screens. People who used other drugs were
systematically excluded. The possibility of intoxication was virtually
eliminated with a hospital stay that included observation to ensure no
one smoked marijuana prior to testing. Despite these methodological
strengths, the number of statistical tests performed became quite high
once groups were divided by gender and IQ and tasks were divided into
subscales. Over 60 statistical tests appear, increasing the possibility of
chance findings. In addition, effects only ranged from small to medium.

Adolescent Samples

All the studies listed so far were performed on adults. The potential
impact of cannabis in adolescence has not received appropriate attention.
92 Understanding Marijuana

Given the development of many cognitive abilities during this stage,

chemical insults could prove quite severe. Only a couple of studies of
adolescents appear in the literature (Schwartz, 1991; Schwartz, Gruene-
wald, Klitzner, & Fedio, 1989). They are frequently cited as evidence for
cannabis-induced impairment but have drawn criticism for methodolog-
ical flaws (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997). These data are particularly impor-
tant because so little is known about marijuana’s impact on young people.
In other work, memory troubles appeared on 2 out of 7 tests in 10
cannabis-dependent adolescents in a drug treatment program when com-
pared to 17 controls. Some but not all of the usual critiques apply to
this study. We do not know if these adolescents would have differed on
these tasks before they started using. Some participants had used phen-
cyclidine, which causes cognitive troubles (Cosgrove & Newell, 1991).
They probably were not intoxicated during testing; the assessments oc-
curred in a treatment center. Only 10 tests were reported, and the effects
on both of the tasks that revealed differences were large. Nevertheless,
over half of the control group was not attending the treatment program.
We do not know the impact of participating in this treatment program,
but the investigators mention that the extreme emotional reactions as-
sociated with admission may interfere with cognitive abilities (Schwartz
et al., 1989). An improved study of adolescents would include more
appropriate controls. Despite the many limitations of this study, the Na-
tional Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws recommends no
cannabis use in children and adolescents (NORML, 1996a). Further re-
search on adolescents would fill an important gap in this literature.

Event-Related Potentials

A body of evidence reveals that chronic, heavy marijuana smokers may

not perform as well as nonsmokers on complex cognitive tasks. Another
technique for assessing changes in information processing involves
changes in an electroencephalogram or EEG. One change associated with
chronic consumption of marijuana concerns deviant brain waves that ap-
pear during a difficult task (Solowij, 1998). Brain waves that occur in
response to a particular event (like a light or a tone) are called event-
related potentials. These alterations in brain waves can reveal information
about cognitive processes. A series of studies looked at these brain waves
and found deviations in chronic, heavy users of marijuana that suggest
they do not process information as accurately or rapidly as nonusers.
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 93

The task employed in these studies of event-related potentials was

very difficult. People had to listen to a series of tones. Some sounded in
the left ear and some in the right ear. The tones were also long or short
and high or low in pitch. Participants had to press a button as fast as
possible in response to the longer tones of a specified pitch in the correct
ear. For example, the investigators might ask a participant to press the
button only in response to high-pitched, longer tones presented in the
right ear. People can easily discriminate between tones in their left and
right ears, but the pitch and duration were more challenging. The high
and low tones were fairly similar. They corresponded to the notes C and
E on the same scale. The lengths were also comparable. The long tone
was only 51 milliseconds (.051seconds) longer than the short tone.
In a series of studies using this task, chronic cannabis users showed
problems discriminating between the tones. They failed to press the but-
ton after the target tone more frequently than nonusers. They also
pressed the button in response to nontarget tones more often than the
nonusers. In addition to making more errors, the chronic users showed
deviant event-related potentials. Nonusers tended to show large event-
related potentials after the target tones, but their brain waves did not
change after the irrelevant tones. The large changes suggest cognitive
processing of the relevant tones. The absence of changes suggests that
participants quickly identified the irrelevant tones and did not process
them. Compared to the nonusers, chronic users showed slower changes
in response to the target tones and larger changes after the irrelevant
tones. The brain wave changes in chronic users suggest that they had a
harder time separating the relevant from the irrelevant tones. Thus,
chronic users appeared to have more trouble distinguishing between
these different stimuli.
Most of the usual confounds for research that reveals differences be-
tween users and nonusers were controlled in this study. They may have
differed in abilities prior to ever using cannabis, but they performed
equally well on a reading test that correlates highly with general IQ.
(Many investigators assume that IQ is very stable, suggesting that the
groups likely did not differ before they started using cannabis.) Differ-
ences in the use of other drugs were minimized by eliminating any po-
tential participant who reported using any other drug more than once a
month. The users and nonusers also had comparable drinking habits, ed-
ucations, and ages. Urine screens confirmed that participants were not
high while performing the tests.
94 Understanding Marijuana

Further work has added support to the hypothesis that chronic mar-
ijuana use served as the genuine source of the poor discrimination per-
formance and deviant brain waves. A subsequent study showed that at
least one type of deviant event-related potential grew worse with longer
durations of chronic cannabis use (Solowij, 1998). This potential (pro-
cessing negativity or PN) was a response to irrelevant tones that was
larger in chronic users than nonusers, confirming problems with separat-
ing relevant from irrelevant stimuli. Another type of potential (P300)
occurred more slowly in all users, regardless of how long they had
smoked cannabis. This result suggests that chronic users may take longer
to process some information.
Another subsequent study examined these same variables in people
who had used marijuana regularly for at least 5 years but who had quit
an average of 2 years before the experiment (Solowij, 1998). These ex-
users still performed more slowly than nonusers at pressing the button
after the target tone, but they did not hit the button incorrectly any more
often than nonusers did. Their brain waves improved, too. Their PN
responses to the irrelevant tones were not as large as those found in the
chronic users who were still smoking marijuana, but they were still not
as small as those found in the nonusers. These results suggest that the
ability to separate relevant from irrelevant stimuli may take longer to
recover. In contrast, the slowing of the P300 was no longer present in
the ex-users. Apparently, this aspect of processing recovers more quickly.
These comparisons between users, nonusers, and ex-users offer consid-
erable support for the hypothesis that chronic marijuana use leads to
these cognitive changes.


Acute intoxication with marijuana clearly impairs a number of cognitive

tasks, including aspects of memory, perception, reading aloud, arith-
metic, and complex reaction time. Acute intoxication may or may not
alter other facets of thinking, including simple reaction time, disinhibi-
tion, and vigilance. Some research shows deficits in these tasks, but other
studies do not. More research with larger samples and multiple measures
of these abilities could help establish whether or not marijuana impairs
reaction time, disinhibition, and vigilance. Other cognitive abilities re-
main intact during intoxication, including the ability to learn simple tasks
Marijuana’s Impact on Thought and Memory 95

and remember material mastered prior to using the drug. Users should
avoid certain tasks during intoxication if optimal performance is essential.
Studies of the impact of chronic, heavy use of marijuana are fraught
with numerous confounds. Despite the many limitations of the different
studies, a few conclusions appear tenable. Long-term exposure to can-
nabis probably does not affect gross intellectual functioning. Neverthe-
less, the ability to perform quickly on elaborate tasks likely decreases with
chronic use. Studies of event-related potentials reveal that the processing
of information differs after years of regular cannabis consumption. These
results suggest that chronic users may not provide the best performance
on complicated tasks that require speedy responses. These deficits imply
some alteration in brain function that accompanies chronic exposure to
marijuana. The implications for these effects on the brain and nervous
system appear in chapter 7.
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Subjective Effects

Perceptions change during marijuana intoxication. Time and space ap-

pear distorted. The senses seem more sensitive. Higher functions like
thought, memory, and spirituality can alter, too. Some of these changes
stem from the pharmacological properties of the cannabinoids. Others
arise from the expectations of the user, the demands of the environment,
or the attitudes of the culture where the drug is ingested. These factors
can combine in unpredictable ways to create odd experiences. This chap-
ter describes some of the difficulties associated with assessing subjective
experience and addresses marijuana’s perceived effects on time, space,
and the senses, as well as higher functions like emotion, thought, mem-
ory, sexuality, spirituality, and sleep. An overview of these effects is given
in the following list:

Time slows
Space appears more vast
Senses appear enhanced

Euphoria increases
Relaxation increases
Feelings seem stronger
Fear increases at high doses

98 Understanding Marijuana

Focus on the present increases
Forgetfulness increases

Orgasms appear enhanced
Responsiveness appears enhanced

Openness to experience increases
Sense of the divine increases

Improves at low doses
Shows impairment at high doses

Concentration appears impaired
Eyes redden
Mouth and other mucous membranes lose moisture

Most people cannot find the words to explain their sensations. De-
scribing simple changes in perception or emotion remains difficult
enough during the most sober and wakeful moments. Add the confound-
ing effects of drugs, and words can fail to portray experience. Despite
the difficulties associated with describing consciousness, regular users of
cannabis often develop their own jargon to depict marijuana’s effects.
Novel terms describe the intoxication that different strains of marijuana
may produce. Some varieties purportedly create “heady” or cerebral ex-
periences. Others lead to “mellow” or sedating effects. Another type may
earn the label “laughing grass” because its users find everything funny.
These fine distinctions among subjective states parallel the subtle discrim-
inations that wine connoisseurs make when judging the latest vintage. In
fact, cannabis competitions in Amsterdam often rank products based on
these subjective effects.
Some of the first attempts to describe the phenomenology of mari-
juana intoxication appeared in literature rather than science. Gautier,
Ludlow, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, and many other authors have written
Subjective Effects 99

thousands of words in an effort to depict cannabis’s effects. Scientific

researchers have reported case studies of intoxication to try to describe
the drug’s impact, too (e.g., Moreau, 1845). A few recurrent themes
appear in these works. First, reactions to cannabis vary dramatically from
person to person. Some people truly detest the experience, reporting
painful self-consciousness, disorientation, and paranoia. They rarely use
the drug more than once. Research may underestimate the frequency
and severity of these aversive reactions, because most studies focus on
experienced users who enjoy the drug. These individuals often appreciate
cannabis immensely. Some of their reactions sound similar to descriptions
of religious ecstasy. This huge variation in responses suggests that no one
person’s intoxication experience is typical.
Second to the vast individual variation in reactions, all reports empha-
size that attitudes and surroundings contribute to the subjective experi-
ence of the drug. Individuals who expect to have a pleasant time and ar-
range for cozy, safe, relaxed surroundings frequently report positive effects
from the drug. In contrast, those who anticipate a fearful experience and
use the drug in an uncomfortable setting can report panic and suspicious-
ness. Baudelaire (1861) described the importance of these circumstances
over 140 years ago, recommending that users of hashish find a nice spot
outdoors or a well-decorated room with a little music. Zinberg (1984) re-
fers to the relevant environment as the setting and the individual’s expec-
tations as the set. He asserts that both set and setting can contribute to the
impact of any psychoactive drug. Many studies support his ideas.
Because environment and expectations contribute to the subjective
experience of marijuana, the study of the drug’s effects requires diverse
methods and careful interpretations. No single experiment can depict the
phenomenology of intoxication perfectly. Detailed reports of individual
experiences, including the literary work of the authors above, can help
generate hypotheses about the drug. Nevertheless, the impact on a few
authors may not generalize to everyone. This literary work inspired the
first formal research on larger samples of people. These studies focused
on self-reported marijuana effects (Halikas, Goodwin, & Guze, 1971;
Tart, 1971). Instead of examining a few long, literary narratives about
intoxication, these researchers employed larger groups of users who an-
swered structured questions about their experience. Their results appear
in detail below. Although these data reveal a great deal about the drug,
they can only tell part of the story of cannabis intoxication. People’s
memories about their moods and emotions may not accurately reflect
100 Understanding Marijuana

their sensations, so some effects may only appear reliably when users
consume the drug in the laboratory.
Memory problems may not be the only source of error in reports of
marijuana’s impact. People can mistakenly think that the drug has
changed their mood when other activities may have altered their feelings.
While smoking cannabis, people often behave in ways that would change
their emotions, even in the absence of the drug. Listening to music, sa-
voring favorite foods, and enjoying other activities stereotypically paired
with marijuana consumption may provide some of the euphoria usually
attributed to the substance. People may say that marijuana makes them
happy, when, in fact, it is the chance to watch TV, have sex, or walk in
the woods that actually improves their moods. In addition, some cannabis
effects may stem from expectations rather than pharmacology. People
may expect a drug to make them happy and may end up feeling happy
simply as a result of the expectation. These potential limitations of re-
search on self-reports inspired many laboratory studies of cannabis, hash-
ish, and isolated THC.
Laboratory administrations of cannabis or cannabinoids can validate
self-reports and case studies. People may describe experiences in the lab-
oratory that parallel accounts of intoxication in the field. These experi-
ments can also help disentangle pharmacological effects from
expectancies. Crafty researchers may administer credible placebos, in-
cluding marijuana with no THC, to see if subjective sensations alter in
response to the mere idea of smoking cannabis. Any changes in reaction
to the placebo obviously must stem from beliefs about the drug rather
than any chemical. In fact, at least part of the subjective effects of the
drug arise from these expectations. This research approach can help iso-
late THC’s impact in a way that self-reports about intoxication outside
the laboratory cannot.
Yet these laboratory studies have limitations, too. Laboratory settings
are often artificial. Good experimental design usually requires keeping all
aspects of the environment the same for those who use the drug and
those who receive the placebo. Then any difference in experience must
stem from the cannabis itself. Unfortunately, this sort of control may
lead to administering the drug in settings that fail to generalize to the
world outside the laboratory. For example, research might focus on a
lone smoker in a sterile room completing questionnaires while sur-
rounded by sober experimenters. This approach may not provide the best
data on emotional responses to the drug. Yet bringing a group of friends
Subjective Effects 101

into the laboratory to share a pipe and discuss whatever comes to mind
leaves too much to chance. The emotional experience may stem from
the particular mix of people, the topics they haphazardly choose to dis-
cuss, or the drug itself. Thus, each approach to understanding marijuana
intoxication has limitations. Only the sum of research using different
methods can help depict the experience. Examining self-reports and lab-
oratory work may serve as the only way to understand the phenomenol-
ogy of marijuana intoxication, short of Ginsberg’s (1966) recommenda-
tion of ingesting the drug oneself.
One of the first formal investigations of the phenomenology of mari-
juana intoxication asked more than 200 questions of 150 people who
had used the drug at least a dozen times (Tart, 1971). Participants were
mostly college students from California. The questionnaire described spe-
cific experiences that might occur during intoxication, such as feeling
euphoric or forgetting things. Participants rated how frequently they had
these experiences after using marijuana. The rating scale extended from
“not at all,” to “sometimes,” “very often,” and “usually.” Participants also
rated how high they had to be in order to first notice the effect. Like
any research, this study is a product of its era. The questions employed
the jargon of the late 1960s. For example, people were asked how they
feel when they “turn on” (an expression for using marijuana). Other items
referred to understanding people’s “games” (the social scripts that guided
their behavior) and “hang ups” (their troubles).
Despite using the slang of a different era, this study revealed a lot
about intoxication that should apply today. The research identified over
30 experiences that were characteristic of the marijuana high. Tart
(1971) defined a characteristic effect as one that at least half of the peo-
ple indicated that they experienced very often or usually. He also iden-
tified many effects that did not occur as often as the characteristic ones
but still seemed quite common. Common effects were those that half of
the participants (or more) reported experiencing at least sometimes.
These data confirmed many of the reports in early literary works and case
studies. Subsequent laboratory research that actually administered THC
supports many of Tart’s (1971) seminal findings. Other researchers using
comparable interviews and questionnaires also added to the understand-
ing of the cannabis intoxication experience. The results of this work fall
into a number of different categories based on different effects. Some
focus primarily on perception; others involve higher functions like emo-
tions and spirituality.
102 Understanding Marijuana


Literary accounts of intoxication frequently mention a distorted flow of

time (Gautier, 1846; Ginsberg, 1966). Early case studies of cannabis’s
effects also emphasized the feeling that time slowed. A thirty-second
commercial or three-minute rock song may seem to last markedly longer
after using marijuana. Tart’s (1971) participants reported that the char-
acteristic effects of cannabis included the sense that time passes very
slowly. This effect appeared at moderate levels of intoxication or more.
The participants also suggested that they gave little thought to the future
because they focused primarily on the current moment. A separate sam-
ple of 100 people who had used cannabis at least 50 times confirmed
this effect on time perception (Halikas, et al., 1971).
Laboratory methods for assessing the subjective experience of time
also support subjective slowing. One task, time estimation, requires that
individuals wait for a period and then guess the amount of time that has
passed. Participants who have smoked marijuana overestimate the du-
ration. After waiting 30 seconds, intoxicated people might report that a
minute has passed. In another approach, known as time production, peo-
ple must press a button once, wait until they think a specified period has
passed, and then press the button again. For example, they could hit the
space bar of a computer once and then again when they think 30 seconds
has passed. This technique also reveals subjective slowing. After smoking
marijuana, people produce shorter intervals. They might wait only 20
seconds between presses when asked to wait 30 seconds. They seem to
think that more time has passed than actually has. A review of a dozen
of these laboratory studies suggests that time clearly slows during intox-
ication, with larger effects for longer intervals (Chait & Pierri, 1992).
Alcohol also appears to have this effect (Lapp, Collins, Zywiak, & Izzo,
1994). No studies address the impact of both marijuana and alcohol on
time perception. Perhaps they combine to alter time more dramatically.


Moreau’s (1845) early studies of hashish intoxication revealed a deviant

sense of spatial relationships. Members of the Hashish Club perceived
distances inside the room as markedly larger than their actual size. Tart’s
Subjective Effects 103

(1971) sample also reported that their experience of distance changed

after smoking marijuana. They commonly found that the space between
people seemed larger, particularly at moderate levels of intoxication or
more. They also felt that the distances they walked were quite different.
This phenomenon was a characteristic effect reported by over 75% of
the sample at low to moderate levels of intoxication. Laboratory work
confirms these deviant perceptions of space. In a study where people
drove a specified path after smoking marijuana, they overestimated the
distance they traveled. This effect, however, may have been confounded
with time distortion. If an intoxicated person feels that a particular drive
took more time, he or she might assume it included a longer distance
(Bech et al., 1973). Thus, both time and space appear altered after using


Changes in vision often accompany marijuana intoxication. Intoxicated

individuals report enhanced visual acuity and depth perception, but lab-
oratory studies suggest impairment in these same abilities. Perhaps mar-
ijuana makes people feel that certain perceptions are enhanced, even
when they are not. Tart’s (1971) participants reported an enhanced abil-
ity to identify patterns in meaningless visual stimuli after using cannabis.
This characteristic effect occurred when users were strongly intoxicated.
Confirming this experience in the laboratory would prove quite difficult.
It is unclear how to measure the patterns or their meaning. Full-blown
visual hallucinations, where individuals perceive objects that clearly do
not exist, are extremely rare even at high doses of cannabis. Nevertheless,
9% of Tart’s (1971) sample considered hallucinations a usual effect that
began at very high levels of intoxication. Another study of experienced
users revealed that a few (4%) claim to see visions (Halikas et al., 1971).
Ancient Asian texts suggested that these visions appear at large doses
(Abel, 1980). This effect also proves difficult to investigate in the labo-
ratory, but many clinical case studies report hallucinations following can-
nabis consumption at large doses.
Although hallucinations are infrequent, altered perceptions of existing
stimuli appear quite often during intoxication. Gautier (1846) and others
from the Hashish Club wrote extensively about distorted visual percep-
tions of their natural surroundings. For example, an ordinary room sud-
denly seemed darker and more unusual after eating hashish. These de-
104 Understanding Marijuana

scriptions may suffer from the exaggeration and drama associated with
literature from the period, so other research may be more trustworthy.
About half of Tart’s (1971) participants reported seeing auras or lights
around people’s faces at extremely high levels of intoxication. This sort
of visual perceptual aberration may stem from the popularity of auras in
that era, some sort of expectancy, or an actual pharmacological effect of
the drug. A sample of more than 200 Canadians confirms that users
frequently report visual effects (Adamec, Pihl, & Leiter, 1976). Yet no
laboratory work directly addresses these experiences.
Tart’s (1971) sample also reported an improved ability to imagine
pictures and objects, starting in the low to middle ranges of intoxication.
Laboratory studies have failed to confirm these reports. Perhaps the per-
ception of the ability to imagine does not reflect the true ability. For
example, participants who used imagery in a learning and memory task
were asked to describe the images that they used. Judges rated the in-
toxicated people’s descriptions as less vivid than the other group’s (Block
& Wittenborn, 1984b). These results may mean that marijuana intoxi-
cation makes people think that they are better at imagining objects when
in fact they are not. Nevertheless, these data also may mean that intox-
icated individuals do not describe images as vividly. The deficit may not
be in the ability to imagine, but in the ability to articulate the imagined.
Thus, research confirms that people think that cannabis improves their
imaginations, but has yet to confirm any actual positive changes.
The perception of colors also alters after smoking cannabis. Tart’s
(1971) sample reported that they commonly saw new colors or more
subtle shades of color during intoxication. Participants claimed this effect
occurred when they were at least fairly high. Laboratory research reveals
the opposite effect, contradicting these self-reports. After smoking mar-
ijuana, participants did a significantly poorer job of distinguishing be-
tween different hues (Adams, Brown, Haegerstrom-Portnoy, & Flom,
1976). The poorest discriminations appeared in the blue range of the
spectrum. Thus, the perceived effects of marijuana on color perception
do not appear to parallel the actual effects. Perhaps the drug merely
makes users think that this skill has increased.
Cannabis intoxication may also alter perceptions of depth. Tart’s
(1971) participants reported that pictures and images took on an added
three-dimensional appearance after smoking marijuana. This effect began
in the low to middle range of intoxication. A fairly recent and intriguing
case study supports this effect (Mikulas, 1996). The author describes a
Subjective Effects 105

42-year-old physician who had always perceived the world as flat and
two dimensional. While smoking cannabis and viewing mountains, he
suddenly perceived depth. The effect dissipated but then returned as his
eyes and mind were eventually trained to see in three dimensions. Lab-
oratory studies have yet to confirm this effect on depth perception.
Oddly enough, intoxication in the laboratory actually decreases the il-
lusion of three dimensions created by certain pictures presented with a
stereoscope (Emrich et al., 1991).
Finally, another alteration in vision concerns marijuana’s impact on
intraocular pressure, the force within the eye. Robert Randall suffers
from glaucoma, a disorder associated with increased intraocular pressure.
He sees halos around lights when the pressure in his eyes climbs. Mari-
juana reduces this pressure and makes the halos disappear (Randall &
O’Leary, 1998). This improvement in vision may serve as one of the few
examples of cannabis normalizing a perceptual process. Laboratory re-
search confirms the decrease in intraocular pressure, but no studies have
actually assessed the disappearance in the perception of halos around
lights. Large studies of subjective reports have yet to ask about this effect.
Nevertheless, data reveal that people think marijuana can enhance some
visual processes, and laboratory research suggests it actually impairs some
of them.


Marijuana intoxication may alter the perception of sounds. Balzac (1900)

mentions hearing bells after eating hashish. Moreau (1845) found people
grew more sensitive to noises and music during intoxication. Gautier
(1846) claimed to hear celestial chords at the Hashish Club. Tart’s
(1971) participants reported a few characteristic effects related to hear-
ing. These included understanding the words to songs better, detecting
more subtle changes in sound, and perceiving greater separation between
sources of sound. Users claimed that cannabis improved their understand-
ing of lyrics, even at relatively low levels of intoxication. No laboratory
studies confirm these results. Given the lyrics of many contemporary
songs, any marijuana-induced improvement in comprehension might se-
riously harm sales.
Improved perception of subtle changes in sound includes the idea that
notes of music sound more distinct or that rhythms seem more clear.
Almost all of Tart’s (1971) sample (95%) reported this enhanced audi-
106 Understanding Marijuana

tory acuity very often or usually. These effects began at low levels of
intoxication, too. Separate reports from 100 American users and 200
Canadian users confirmed that people believe their hearing improves af-
ter using marijuana (Adamec et al., 1976; Halikas et al., 1971). Labo-
ratory research on the auditory acuity and the perception of differences
in tones is quite advanced, but these procedures have never been applied
during cannabis intoxication. Thus, validation of marijuana’s purported
improvement of hearing awaits further research.
A common, related auditory effect concerns sound taking on visual,
colorful qualities. Researchers call this confusion of one sense for another
“synaesthesia.” The idea of music having color obviously mixes the visual
and auditory domains. This effect appeared only at high levels of intox-
ication in Tart’s (1971) sample. More than 200 Canadian users confirmed
this synesthesia (Adamec et al., 1976). Laboratory studies have never
assessed this phenomenon.
The last auditory improvement reported by Tart’s (1971) participants
concerns greater spatial separation between sound sources. Users sug-
gested that when they listened to music, they felt that the instruments
sounded further from each other. This phenomenon began at moderate
levels of intoxication. This effect likely gave the impression of improved
stereo qualities, with different sounds emanating from different locations
in the room. This effect may fit the recurring theme of enhanced sensory
experiences from marijuana. Researchers have developed paradigms for
testing the perceived distance between sound sources, but none have
been applied during cannabis intoxication. In general, appreciation for
sounds appears to increase with intoxication, but researchers have yet to
confirm or disprove the effect in the laboratory.


Altered perceptions of tactile stimuli serve as a hallmark sign of marijuana

intoxication. Literary accounts of intoxication consistently emphasize an
altered sense of touch. Baudelaire (1861) mentions this effect in “The
Poem of Hashish.” The majority of Tart’s (1971) sample (65%) reported
that they usually experienced a more exciting, more sensual sense of
touch after using cannabis. This effect appeared at the lower middle
ranges of intoxication or more. In addition, they reported that touch took
on new qualities. Over half (55%) of the sample experienced novel tactile
sensations when intoxicated. This finding fits the general theme of per-
Subjective Effects 107

ceptions of enhanced sensations. A separate sample of 100 experienced

users confirmed that marijuana enhanced their sense of touch (Halikas,
Weller, & Morse, 1982); more than 200 Canadian users also reported
this effect (Adamec et al., 1976). These tactile sensations may contribute
to marijuana’s legendary enrichment of sexual experiences, which ap-
pears in more detail in the discussion of higher functions.
Laboratory studies on the thrill of touch after using cannabis have not
appeared, though conducting them should not prove difficult. Blind-
folded subjects could smoke marijuana or a placebo, feel various tactile
stimuli, and rate the enjoyment associated with each. Higher ratings in
the marijuana group would support an enhanced sense of touch associ-
ated with intoxication. Despite self-reports and literary examples of en-
hanced tactile senses, experiments suggest that related abilities may ac-
tually suffer during intoxication. One study asked participants to solve a
puzzle using only their sense of touch. Participants had to place ten
wooden shapes (a square, a cross, a diamond, etc.) into appropriate slots
on a puzzle board. They took significantly longer to solve the puzzle after
smoking cannabis. Participants who smoked placebo showed no deficit
(Maccannell, Milstein, Karr, & Clark, 1977). These results do not mean
that tactile perception is necessarily impaired. Perhaps the enhanced nov-
elty and excitement of touch interferes with the ability to recognize
shapes from only tactile information. Perhaps intoxicated individuals
have less motivation to work quickly on such a task. Nevertheless, mar-
ijuana’s purported facilitation of the sense of touch clearly does not help
people solve tactile puzzles.


Gautier (1846) claimed that the simplest water tasted like exquisite wine
after eating hashish. Marijuana’s legendary impact on appetite has gen-
erated many humorous depictions of the “munchies.” Tart’s (1971) sam-
ple reported that the drug made taste sensations take on new qualities.
This effect began even at low levels of intoxication. Other samples of
experienced users also reported enhanced appreciation of tastes (Adamec
et al., 1976; Halikas et al., 1982). Laboratory studies fail to reveal im-
provements in the ability to taste classic sour, sweet, salty, or bitter sub-
stances (Mattes, Shaw, & Engelman, 1994). Thus, intoxicated people
may not actually improve their ability to taste, but their enjoyment of
tastes may increase dramatically.
108 Understanding Marijuana

Tart’s (1971) sample revealed a related, characteristic effect: intoxi-

cated individuals enjoyed eating and reported consuming large quantities
of food. They also commonly craved sweets during intoxication. Both of
these effects began at low levels of intoxication. In a separate sample of
100 Caucasians who had smoked cannabis at least 50 times, 72% said
that the drug usually increased their hunger and 37% said it increased
their desire for sweets (Halikas et al., 1971).
A detailed laboratory study confirmed these reports. This research re-
vealed a 40% increase in calorie consumption during intoxication. The
study had six men live in a laboratory setting for 13 days. Each day they
smoked 4 marijuana cigarettes or 4 placebos. Not only did they consume
more calories on the days that they smoked cannabis, but they also gained
more weight than one would predict from these additional calories. This
result suggests that marijuana may slow metabolism as well as increase
food consumption (Foltin, Fischman, & Byrne, 1988). Results like these
have inspired the medical use of cannabinoids to improve appetite for
people with problematic weight loss, as discussed in chapter 8.

Higher Functions

Any drug’s impact on human feelings determines its potential for re-
peated use. Literary works devoted to cannabis frequently mention its
pleasant influence on emotion. Tart’s (1971) sample reported that can-
nabis almost invariably improved their mood. This effect appeared at
moderate levels of intoxication or more. Users also grew more relaxed at
this level of intoxication. Data from another sample of 100 people who
used the drug at least 50 times revealed consistent reports of peaceful
and relaxed feelings after smoking (Weller & Halikas, 1982). More than
2,500 veterans who had smoked at least 5 times also reported many
pleasant effects of cannabis. More than 90% said that the drug made
them feel mellow or relaxed. Over 60% reported that the drug made
them euphoric (Lyons et al. 1997). These reactions likely motivated con-
tinued consumption of the drug.
These emotional effects of cannabis are not only pharmacological but
also may stem partly from expectancies. Evidence for the role of expec-
tancies in cannabis’s emotional impact comes from laboratory research.
For example, people who expect to smoke hashish in the laboratory re-
Subjective Effects 109

port feeling “high,” even if the hash contains no THC (Cami, Guerra,
Ugena, Segura, & De La Torre, 1991). Thus, part of the emotional im-
pact of the drug arises in the user’s own mind.
In addition, the idea that the drug’s effect is actually pleasant may
depend upon the user’s attitude. A study using synthetic THC gave the
drug to two groups of people with different instructions. One group
knew the drug was THC; the other group only knew that the drug was
an antiemetic. People who knew that the drug was THC liked the effects
more, found them more euphoric, and wanted more of the substance.
People who did not know that the drug was THC were significantly less
positive about it. Thus, expectations about marijuana and its effects likely
contribute a great deal to its emotional impact (Kirk, Doty, & de Wit,
Tart’s (1971) work documents other affective reactions, too. His sam-
ple reported that they commonly felt emotions more strongly after using
cannabis. This effect did not usually begin until participants reached
strong levels of intoxication. Some examples in literary works support
this idea, but laboratory studies have yet to address the question. Several
methods for assessing emotional reactions have developed over the years.
A simple study comparing those who smoked cannabis to those who
smoked placebo might elicit reactions to emotional slides or film clips.
Greater reactions in the cannabis users would support this report of ex-
aggerated emotions.
Tart (1971) also investigated emotional crises during marijuana intox-
ication. He used the jargon of the era, asking participants the percentage
of users whom they had seen “freak out” or feel “catastrophic emotional
upset.” The vast majority of the sample (89%) estimated that this effect
occurred less than 1% of the time. The actual rate of aversive reactions
to marijuana is probably higher than the number reported by this sample
of experienced users who clearly enjoy the drug.


Cannabis’s impact on emotion may relate to some of its effects on think-

ing. Many of the drug’s cognitive effects appear in chapter 4. Users report
a number of subjective impressions about these changes in their thoughts.
Tart’s (1971) sample reported several relevant, characteristic effects. At
strong levels of intoxication or more, they felt that their thoughts were
more “in the present” or “here and now.” At levels of intoxication from
110 Understanding Marijuana

fairly strong or higher, they found that they were more likely to make
spontaneous insights about themselves, appreciate subtle humor, and ac-
cept contradictory ideas. No laboratory studies have addressed these ef-
fects directly.
Tart’s (1971) participants also reported trouble reading when they
were this intoxicated. In contrast, a separate sample of 100 regular users
found that 30% reported usually experiencing better concentration and
improved mental powers during intoxication (Halikas et al., 1971). Lab-
oratory studies generally contradict these impressions of cognitive im-
provement during intoxication. Perhaps the drug creates the illusion of
improved concentration despite deficits.


Marijuana alters some aspects of memory, as documented in chapter 4.

The subjective experience of memory may differ markedly from the actual
ability. The subjective experience parallels many of the laboratory studies.
Users rarely report problems remembering material learned prior to
intoxication. Laboratory studies generally confirm that people can remem-
ber old material while high. In contrast, users do report deficits in short-
term memory during intoxication. Tart’s (1971) participants charac-
teristically forgot the topic of conversations even before they had ended.
More than half of the sample stated that this forgetting of conversations
occurred very often or usually. This effect began at strong or very strong
levels of intoxication, as laboratory studies of memory confirm.
Although not a characteristic effect, a more dramatic impairment of
memory appeared commonly in Tart’s (1971) data. Over 65% of the
sample said that at least some of the time when they were intoxicated
they could not remember the beginning of a sentence by the time they
reached its end. This drastic impairment of short-term memory also be-
gan at strong or very strong levels of intoxication. This sort of forgetting
appeared commonly in reports from more than 200 Canadian users, too
(Adamec et al., 1976). Users obviously have some insight into the mem-
ory deficits that appear soon after cannabis consumption.
Tart’s (1971) data also revealed an intriguing and unexpected effect
related to memory. Users commonly reported that they spontaneously
recalled events from the distant past, including material they had not
considered in many years. For example, people might recall an incident
from grade school that they had not thought about for quite some time.
Subjective Effects 111

This effect began at strong levels of intoxication for the majority of the
sample. Users appear to know that their short-term memory suffers after
smoking cannabis, but they also claim that spontaneous recall of distant
memories improves.


Few topics are more controversial in American society than sex and
drugs. Their combination often generates confusion and concern. Mari-
juana’s link to sex may be as old as the drug itself. As with other effects,
this one first appeared in literature. One of the tales in The Arabian
Nights (1,001 Nights), published and popularized by 1200 B.C., mentions
sexual arousal in a man who has eaten hashish. Louisa May Alcott’s
(1869) short story “Perilous Play” suggests hashish may speed seduction.
Harry Anslinger spun tales of cannabis enhancing sexuality in his efforts
to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. These reports relied on only a
few cases. Larger studies confirmed the belief that marijuana alters as-
pects of sexuality.
The most characteristic effect related to sex for Tart’s (1971) partic-
ipants concerned enhanced orgasm. Users reported that they appreciated
new qualities of orgasm that they did not usually experience when sober.
This effect may parallel a general increase in the excitement, joy, and
sensitivity of touch, which was also characteristic of intoxication in this
sample. Over half of the participants reported that they were better lov-
ers after using the drug, with many suggesting that they were more re-
sponsive and giving. Most of these effects did not begin until at least a
moderate degree of intoxication.
Self-report research on a separate group of 100 experienced users con-
firmed marijuana’s impact on sex (Weller & Halikas, 1984). Two-thirds
of this sample, who had used the drug at least 50 times, reported that
cannabis intoxication led to some form of sexual enhancement. They
reported improved orgasm, a heightened sense of intimacy and closeness,
and superior sexual prowess. Coincidentally, these users stayed single
longer and were more likely to have sexual contact with someone of their
same sex than people who did not use the drug. Although many effects
of marijuana can dissipate over time, marijuana’s enhancement of sex
appears to remain stable across 6 to 8 years (Halikas, Weller, Morse, &
Hoffmann, 1985).
Few laboratory studies have confirmed these self-reports. Studies of
112 Understanding Marijuana

these sexual effects might include masturbation or intercourse after the

administration of THC. Research of this type could validate reports of
enhanced sexual experiences during intoxication. This work might sug-
gest a new treatment for some sexual dysfunctions. A relatively common
and important problem, hypoactive sexual desire disorder, might benefit
from marijuana. The hallmark symptom of this disorder is an extremely
low sex drive. A decreased desire for sex commonly arises from medical
or psychiatric conditions as well as poor relationships. Once these poten-
tial causes have been eliminated, marijuana may prove a fruitful way to
increase sexual desire. Despite this potential promise, studies of canna-
bis’s impact on sexual drives have not been a high priority of most re-
search funding agencies.


Another controversial topic in American culture concerns concepts re-

lated to the divine. Scientific research on the holy, religious, sacred, or
spiritual often offends some people. Empirical approaches to these topics
were taboo for many years. Nevertheless, recent research documents that
spirituality provides superb benefits for mental and physical health (Mil-
ler, 1999). These results are hardly news to many people leading religious
lives. Yet adding illicit drugs into this sort of research remains contro-
Several cultures view psychoactive substances as an important part of
spirituality. For example, the Native American Church uses peyote as a
sacrament. The Coptic and Rastafarian Churches smoke cannabis as part
of their religious practice, too. Certain sects of Buddhism in Nepal use
marijuana as a sacrament (Clarke, 1998). Thus, spiritual aspects of can-
nabis have inspired some investigation.
Tart’s (1971) sample reported only one characteristic effect that he
interpreted as potentially spiritual. This effect concerned feeling more
childlike, open to experience, and filled with wonder. Over 65% of the
sample experienced this effect very often or usually. It began at moderate
to strong levels of intoxication. Tart (1971) also asked simple yes-or-no
questions about spiritual topics. One-fourth of the sample reported spir-
itual experiences from marijuana that had a dramatic impact on them.
Users described these events as moments of connection to the universe,
contact with the divine, or expressions of peace and joy. These effects
paralleled reports of religious ecstasy. Approximately one-fifth of the
Subjective Effects 113

sample said that intoxication had acquired religious significance for them.
Contemporary authors also assert that the drug can enhance spirituality.
Many encourage pensive, meditative use of the drug and deride mindless
consumption (Bello, 1996). This approach to use may minimize the po-
tential for negative consequences related to the drug. People who smoke
cannabis in a thoughtful way and consciously attend to their experience
may be less likely to show symptoms of abuse.


Marijuana intoxication alters sleep. Dr. J. R. Reynolds, chief physician to

Queen Victoria, recommended the drug for insomnia. Many early literary
accounts mention sedation and dramatic dreams (Rosenthal, Gieringer,
& Mikuriya, 1997). Tart’s (1971) sample commonly reported that they
grew drowsy, particularly at strong levels of intoxication. They charac-
teristically stated that they found falling asleep very easy, beginning at
the lowest level of intoxication. They also reported improved sleep qual-
ity, especially at strong levels of intoxication.
On the other hand, a subset reported disturbed sleep, especially after
very high doses. This paradoxical arousal goes against other self-report
studies that confirm that marijuana relaxes people (Lyons et al., 1997;
Halikas et al., 1985). Laboratory research has revealed greater sedation
when participants smoke cannabis. The placebo joint did not have the
same effect (Block, Erwin, Farinpour, & Braverman, 1998). These effects
have inspired cannabis use in the informal treatment of insomnia. Many
other drugs have an impact on sleep, particularly the barbiturates and
benzodiazepines. The barbiturates are notorious for their potential for
abuse, dependence, and lethal overdose. Benzodiazepines can cause
memory loss and lead to a sluggish feeling the next morning.
The drawbacks of these insomnia drugs led a woman with multiple
sclerosis to smoke marijuana before bed. She reported successful, restful
sleep as a result (Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997). Although THC causes
many of marijuana’s effects, cannabidiol appears to have the biggest im-
pact on sleep. A sample of 15 insomniacs who received cannabidiol im-
proved their sleep dramatically (Carlini & Cunha, 1981). Despite these
encouraging data for cannabidiol, some of the best treatments for insom-
nia require changing behaviors rather than taking drugs. These interven-
tions include multiple steps. People with sleep problems often benefit
from retiring at the same time each night, avoiding stimulants like caf-
114 Understanding Marijuana

feine, and using their beds only for sleep and sex rather than other ac-
tivities. This sort of good sleep hygiene may provide better rest than any
medications. Nevertheless, further research on smoked marijuana and
isolated cannabidiol can provide intriguing information on the role of the
cannabinoids in sleep and consciousness.

Undesirable Effects

Negative feelings associated with marijuana intoxication often receive less

attention than the stereotypical euphoria. Cannabis can create aversive
reactions, particularly after extremely large doses or during the first ex-
posure to the drug. Literature has not neglected the distressing impact
hashish may have. Gautier, Ludlow, and Baudelaire all detail frightening
effects associated with overdose. One of Louisa May Alcott’s (1869)
characters in “Perilous Play” describes the aversive effects as “not so pleas-
ant, unless one likes phantoms, frenzies, and a touch of nightmare.” Tart’s
(1971) sample did not report many negative reactions. They claimed that
they often found themselves distractible and easily sidetracked. This
mental fogginess was the only characteristic negative effect. Common
negative effects included an inability to think clearly, work accurately, or
solve problems efficiently. Participants also said that marijuana made
them feel physically weaker.
Laboratory research confirms slow and inefficient thought during in-
toxication. Experiments have not documented physical weakness, but
reported sedation in the laboratory may reflect this feeling (Block et al.,
1998). Tart’s (1971) minimal reports of negative consequences like panic
or discomfort may not be typical of everyone. His participants had all
smoked cannabis an average of over 200 times, with a minimum of a
dozen. People who experience severe negative reactions likely quit using
the drug long before the twelfth try. Therefore, they would not end up
participating in studies requiring consistent marijuana consumption.
A sample of more than 2,500 people who had used cannabis at least
5 times confirmed these negative effects and suggested a few more. This
study may have revealed more negative effects because it did not require
as much use of the drug as Tart’s (1971) research. Over half of the
sample claimed that they could not concentrate when they were intox-
icated, and nearly 40% said that the drug made them confused. Partici-
pants also reported many other undesirable reactions, including paranoia,
guilt, and nausea. Some of the people in this study were twins, permitting
Subjective Effects 115

an examination of the heritability of these effects. Analyses comparing

the identical twins to the fraternal twins revealed that these negative
effects were likely inherited. Positive effects, which included enhanced
relaxation, creativity, energy, and euphoria, also appeared to have a her-
itable component (Lyons et al., 1997). These results support the idea
that a biological factor contributes to cannabis’s subjective effects.
Another potentially negative feeling associated with marijuana intox-
ication is depersonalization. Depersonalization typically involves an al-
teration in the experience of one’s self or reality. Feeling unreal, separated
from one’s body, or anxiously unaware of identity is part of deperson-
alization. It can occur during a number of unfavorable conditions, in-
cluding sleep deprivation, fatigue, panic, and psychosis. Nevertheless, un-
der appropriate circumstances the sensation may not feel aversive.
Sensory deprivation and meditation may lead to depersonalization with
few frightening or disorienting qualities. Tart (1971) did not inquire
about this effect. A study of 100 regular users found 12% reported usu-
ally feeling a separation from self after smoking marijuana. Almost half
of this sample (49%) said they have had this experience occasionally
(Weller & Halikas, 1982). Laboratory work clearly documents that can-
nabis heightens depersonalization (Mathew et al., 1999). This deperson-
alization correlated with anger, tension, and confusion, suggesting that
the experience had negative components.
Two other undesirable effects of marijuana include dry mouth and red
eyes. Over 60% of a sample of 100 experienced users reported that smok-
ing marijuana usually dried their mouths and throats. Almost all of the
sample (99%) experienced this effect at least occasionally. Two-thirds
said that marijuana made their eyes red at least occasionally (Halikas et
al., 1971). Users easily cure dry mouth with a few sips of liquid, and red
eyes usually respond to drops. Thus, these negative effects are not strong
deterrents to consumption of the drug. Most users complain about red
eyes as a telltale sign of intoxication that they would prefer to avoid in
many settings.
One of the most novel and striking undesirable reactions to cannabis
illustrates the role of cultural factors in drug responses. At least two
individuals who smoked high doses of marijuana the first time that they
tried the drug experienced Koro (Chowdhury & Bera, 1994), which
means “turtle’s head.” It is an acute state of anxiety associated with a
strong fear of death. It also includes the alarming perception that one’s
penis has retracted into the abdomen. Any man who holds his member
116 Understanding Marijuana

dear can understand the terror that must accompany this delusion.
Thankfully, the disorder remains extremely rare. Oddly, most cases are
limited to Asian countries, where the idea that anxiety might lead to
penis loss is considered more tenable. In China, the disorder is known as
shook yang (shrinking penis). The two cases associated with marijuana
intoxication appeared in West Bengal, India, where a Koro epidemic had
occurred in 1982 (Franzini & Grossberg, 1995).
The first reported case of marijuana-induced Koro involved a 27-year-
old Hindu, who took 30 large inhalations of cannabis the first time he
used the drug. He later had odd sensations in his legs and reached down
to touch them. To his horror, he found that his penis had seemingly
disappeared inside his abdomen. Understandably, he screamed for help.
His friends came, grabbed his penis, and put him in a nearby pond for
over two hours until he realized his genitals were normal. The second
case involved a distant cousin of the first. This 26-year-old man lived in
a nearby village. He had heard of his cousin’s case but did not know that
the symptoms appeared after using cannabis. On his first exposure to the
drug he felt an odd, empty space in his abdomen that he thought he
could fill via deep breathing. He suddenly had the haunting sensation
that each breath caused further and further retraction of his penis. He,
too, cried for help. His friends placed him in a pond for half an hour
until he felt his genitals had returned to normal.
Explanations of this odd malady remain difficult to prove. The phe-
nomenon remains so rare that systematic studies have been impossible.
Nevertheless, given the documented increases in anxiety that can accom-
pany marijuana intoxication, these cases may represent a cultural inter-
pretation of panic. Both men lived near the location of a Koro epidemic.
They may have learned vicariously that panic and penile retraction can
occur together. Thus, in their first exposure to cannabis, anxiety and
other symptoms may have led them to think of this reaction to panic.
Once this expectation was activated, the reaction may have become self-
fulfilling. Worry about penile retraction may have exaggerated anxiety,
which in turn may have heightened the worry about penile retraction.
The simple treatment (spending time in a pond) suggests that perhaps
any distraction that might alleviate anxiety could decrease Koro. Other
cases support the idea that anxiety and a cultural expectation contribute
to the disorder. For example, Koro has appeared during heroin with-
drawal, a condition notoriously associated with angst and discomfort
Subjective Effects 117

(Chowdhury & Bagchi, 1993). Laboratory investigations of marijuana-

induced Koro have not appeared in the literature.
Another undesirable side effect worthy of investigation concerns can-
nabis hangover. Clinical lore suggests that a night of heavy marijuana
consumption can lead to fuzzy thinking and fatigue the following day.
Self-report questionnaires offer mixed results about reactions that linger
after intoxication has ended. Tart’s (1971) seminal work on subjective
effects did not address hangover.
A study of 100 people who had smoked at least 50 times did address
this question. These people rated many possible aftereffects as occurring
“usually,” “occasionally,” or “not at all.” The aftereffects that most of the
sample rated as “usual” ones were all positive. More than half of the
participants said that they usually experienced feeling calm, clear-
minded, and rested after marijuana intoxication wore off. In contrast,
approximately half also reported that occasionally they awoke tired and
felt that their minds were foggy. These experiences are more consistent
with the stereotype of hangover.
These self-report data suggest that the aftereffects of marijuana do not
feel as aversive as the hangover symptoms associated with alcohol or
other drugs. In fact, it is unclear from these data if marijuana is the actual
source of all of these symptoms, given the frequency that people con-
sume alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs simultaneously (Earleywine &
Newcomb, 1997). Controlled administration of marijuana in the absence
of other drugs is the only way to illuminate this issue.
Laboratory studies do not consistently confirm the presence of a mar-
ijuana hangover. Subjective experiences of hangover probably vary as
dramatically as reactions to intoxication. One study of 12 subjects found
no evidence of hangover the morning after smoking cannabis in the lab-
oratory (Chait, 1990). Another experiment performed in the same lab-
oratory is frequently cited as evidence for hangover because participants
who had smoked cannabis felt worse the morning after. Yet a close look
at the results reveals that people felt significantly better the morning after
smoking cannabis than after smoking placebo. The 13 participants scored
higher on Elation and Positive Mood scales in the cannabis condition.
They also reported feeling more energetic and aroused. Perhaps partici-
pants fell into a bad mood when they expected to smoke marijuana and
ended up with placebo. This disappointment may have stayed with them
until the next morning (Chait, Fischman, & Schuster, 1985).
118 Understanding Marijuana

Other studies offer more support for a marijuana hangover. Research-

ers administered 10, 20, or 30 mg of THC. (These dosages translate to
roughly the amount of THC in .5, 1, and 1.5 cannabis cigarettes. Given
the typical loss of 50% of THC to sidestream smoke, the impact may
have been more like 1, 2, and 3 joints.) The 9 participants in this study
reported some residual intoxication and confusion the next day, partic-
ularly at the highest dose (Cousens & DiMascio, 1973). Perhaps THC
alone causes more negative aftereffects than the full combination of can-
nabinoids present in marijuana.
Behavioral measures also suggest marijuana may have some impact
after intoxication has ended. A distorted perception of time can remain
the morning after smoking marijuana (Chait et al., 1985). A study of
nine airplane pilots showed an unsurprising impairment on a flight sim-
ulator after smoking one cannabis cigarette. In seven of them, perfor-
mance did not return to unintoxicated levels, even 24 hours later (Leirer,
Yesavage, & Morrow, 1991). Thus, though marijuana hangover lacks the
severity of the aftereffects of alcohol and other drugs, it can occur at
detectable levels for laboratory study. These negative experiences asso-
ciated with use may alter consumption of the drug in many people.


It’s hard to describe consciousness. Anyone’s subjective experience al-

ways includes complicated combinations of thoughts, feelings, and sen-
sations. The way these combinations alter during marijuana intoxication
remains difficult to depict. Nevertheless, literary examples, case studies,
laboratory experiments, and reports from experienced users confirm sev-
eral of cannabis’s effects. Although individual reactions vary dramatically,
a few key experiences appear commonly in regular users. The drug clearly
alters perception. Time slows. Space appears more vast or variable. The
senses generally seem more appealing and interesting, despite laboratory
evidence that they may actually be impaired. Visual acuity seems better.
Sounds appear to take on new qualities. Touch and taste both seem more
intriguing and sensual. Yet laboratory evidence does not support these
Higher functions also change during marijuana intoxication. Emotions
seem more salient or extreme. Euphoria predominates. Thoughts seem
more focused on the current moment. Short-term memory clearly suf-
Subjective Effects 119

fers, with users occasionally forgetting one sentence while uttering the
next. Sexuality and spirituality increase. Sleep can improve at low doses
or suffer at higher ones. A few negative subjective effects also seem com-
mon, including anxiety, guilt, paranoia, and perhaps hangover. Some of
these effects may stem simply from expectancy, some vary with culture,
and some clearly arise as part of the pharmacology of the cannabinoids.
The drug’s popularity may rely, in part, on its ability to create all of these
disparate but potentially pleasant effects.
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Cannabis Pharmacology

Understanding marijuana’s impact on biological systems requires a de-

scription of its active components. This chapter begins by identifying the
mind-altering molecules in marijuana, the substances that contain these
chemicals, and their respective potencies. It continues with a discussion
of the way these substances enter the body, metabolize, and reach their
sites of action. The remainder of the chapter focuses on the receptors
that respond to these cannabinoids and the natural substances in the body
that work at these same sites.
Marijuana contains more than 60 compounds unique to the plant called
cannabinoids. They interact with each other in interesting ways, altering
their impact. Cannabinoids appear in a variety of strengths in marijuana,
hashish, hash oil, and synthetic medications like nabilone, dronabinol, and
levonantradol. People eat or smoke these products, leading to slower or
faster absorption of chemicals. The cannabinoids alter the permeability of
nerve membranes. They also react with their own special receptors—CB1
in the brain and nervous system and CB2 in the immune system. Re-
searchers have identified substances native to the body that also work on
these receptors, including anandamide and arachidonolyl-glycerol. De-
tails of each of these topics appear in the following sections.

Active Ingredients—the Cannabinoids

A first step in understanding marijuana’s impact involves identifying its

active components. Cannabis contains more than 400 different chemical

122 Understanding Marijuana

Figure 6.1. Delta-9-THC. This cannabinoid is responsible for most of mari-

juana’s psychoactive effects.

compounds. At least 66 are unique to the plant and receive the name
“cannabinoids.” The best known cannabinoid is probably delta-9 tetra-
hydrocannabinol (THC). Considerable research has also examined the
related molecule delta-8 THC. Two conventions exist for naming chem-
icals: formal and monoterpenoid. Thus, delta-9 THC (the formal name)
is also called delta-1 THC (the monoterpenoid name). Similarly, delta-8
THC is also known as delta-6 THC. This text uses only the formal names.
THC alone refers to the delta-9 variety. Delta-9 THC and delta-8 THC
appear to produce the majority of the psychoactive effects of marijuana.
As figures 6.1 and 6.2 reveal, the molecules differ only in the location of
the double bond in the first carbon ring.
Delta-9 THC is more abundant in the plant, leading researchers to
hypothesize that it is the main source of the drug’s impact. The liver
breaks delta-9 THC down into 11-OH-delta-9 THC (11-hydroxy-delta-

Figure 6.2. Delta-8-THC. This cannabinoid produces some of marijuana’s

psychoactive effects, but it is less abundant than delta-9-THC.
Cannabis Pharmacology 123

9-THC). This metabolite also causes psychoactive effects, including

changes in subjective sensations. As figure 6.3 reveals, it only differs from
THC by a few atoms, but it may be three times as potent because it
reaches the brain more readily (Razdan, 1986).
Two other common cannabinoids are cannabinol and cannabidiol, de-
picted in figures 6.4 and 6.5, respectively. Delta-9-THC, cannabinol, and
cannabidiol are the most prevalent psychoactive chemicals in the plant
and provide the majority of marijuana’s effects. For example, THC and
cannabidiol account for 95% of marijuana’s active ingredients (Dooren-
bos, Fetterman, Quimby, & Turner, 1971). Dozens of other cannabinoids
exist, but most are variants of delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC, cannabinol,
and cannabidiol. Research has uncovered six additional families of mol-
ecules unique to marijuana. All begin with the familiar “cannab” prefix.
These include cannabichromene, cannabicyclol, cannabielsoin, cannabi-
gerol, cannabinidiol, and cannabitriol. Many differ little from each other.
All are lipophilic, meaning that they dissolve in fat, fatty tissue, or fatty
fluids. They are not soluble in water. Thus, despite the claims of many
aging hippies, teas made from boiled marijuana probably do not create
extensive cannabinoid effects.
A great deal of research focuses on THC. Some investigators have
turned their attention to the other cannabinoids, particularly cannabinol
and cannabidiol. Studies address the activity of each of these chemicals
alone and in combination with THC. Cannabinol has generated consid-
erable interest, in part, because THC breaks down into this compound

Figure 6.3. 11-hydroxy-delta-9-THC. The liver breaks delta-9-THC into this

compound, which reaches the brain faster and may be 3 times as psychoac-
124 Understanding Marijuana

Figure 6.4. Cannabinol. Delta-9-THC breaks down into this compound as

stored marijuana ages.

as it ages. Initial research on cannabinol suggested that it had no impact

on subjective experience, offering an explanation for the decreased po-
tency of old cannabis (Hollister, 1974). As the THC in marijuana de-
grades into cannabinol, the marijuana’s effects diminish. Yet intravenous
administration of cannabinol can create some subjective effects at high
doses, since it appears to be about one-tenth as strong as THC (Perez-
Reyes, Timmons, Davis, & Wall, 1973).
Animals clearly respond to high doses of cannabinol as if it were com-
parable to THC (Jarbe & Hiltunen, 1987). For example, both cannabinol
and THC increase sleep and lower body temperature in mice (Yoshida
et al., 1995). Despite these similarities, cannabinol is probably more ac-
tive in the immune system than in the nervous system. In contrast, THC
is probably more active in the nervous system than in the immune system
(IOM, 1999). Because both compounds are so prevalent in marijuana,

Figure 6.5. Cannabidiol. This cannabinoid becomes delta-9-THC as the mar-

ijuana plant matures.
Cannabis Pharmacology 125

research has also addressed cannabinol’s interaction with THC. Canna-

binol diminishes the intensity of THC’s subjective effects but prolongs
their duration. Cannabinol may also decrease some of the stimulation
that THC can produce (Brazis & Mathre, 1997).
Considerable research also focuses on cannabidiol. Cannabidiol be-
comes THC as the marijuana plant matures, and this THC later breaks
down into cannabinol. Up to 40% of the cannabis resin from some mar-
ijuana strains is cannabidiol (Grilly, 1998). Yet the amount varies in dif-
ferent plants. Some African varieties contain little of the chemical (Turner
& Hadley, 1974). Early studies suggested that cannabidiol administered
alone had no impact, much like early studies of cannabinol (Hollister,
1974). Later research, however, revealed its effects only appeared at mod-
erate doses. Too little or too much of the drug created no response. The
appropriate dosage, however, can decrease anxiety in healthy people. It
also reduces psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices or thinking in-
coherently. In addition, cannabidiol induces sleepiness and may protect
epileptics against seizures (Zuardi & Guimaraes, 1997).
Research has also addressed the impact of cannabidiol on THC’s ef-
fects. The two cannabinoids in combination may create different expe-
riences from either drug alone. Synergistic interactions like this can be
very difficult to study. Drug lore suggests that cannabidiol minimizes
THC’s psychoactive effects and delays their onset. Yet formal studies
reveal that the interaction is not quite so simple. Cannabidiol may ex-
aggerate some of THC’s effects while attenuating others. It may increase
THC-induced euphoria, but limit the production of anxiety and disor-
dered thinking. Cannabidiol slows THC metabolism in the liver. Thus, a
dose of THC combined with cannabidiol will create more psychoactive
metabolites than the same dose of THC administered alone (Bornheim,
Kim, Perotti, & Benet, 1995). By slowing THC’s metabolism, cannabidiol
can exaggerate some of its effects, including euphoria and the subjective
sense of feeling high.
Although cannabidiol slows THC metabolism, it also may limit the
drug’s negative side effects. THC alone can produce anxiety, panic, and
psychotic symptoms, particularly at high doses. Cannabidiol not only de-
creases anxiety on its own, but it also buffers against THC-induced panic
and discomfort. Cannabidiol minimizes psychotic symptoms like bizarre
thoughts or odd perceptions. Thus, it may attenuate these negative as-
pects of THC intoxication. Strains of marijuana that lack cannabidiol may
produce more panic or psychotic effects. These findings may prove par-
126 Understanding Marijuana

ticularly useful given recent research on dronabinol (Marinol), the syn-

thetic version of THC used to treat nausea and weight loss. Negative side
effects of this drug might decrease if physicians combined it with can-
nabidiol (Zuardi & Guimaraes, 1997).

Cannabis Preparations

Users can ingest cannabinoids in a number of forms, including marijuana,

hashish, hash oil, and synthetic medications. Nearly all parts of the mar-
ijuana plant contain psychoactive ingredients, but most of the cannabi-
noids appear in the resinous glands and flowering tops. Thus, the price for
glands or tops is markedly higher than for other parts of the plant. Dif-
ferent cannabis preparations have different names. “Marijuana,” a Spanish
word purportedly coined in Mexico, originally meant cheap tobacco. The
term may stem from the Portuguese expression “mariguango,” which
means intoxicant (Maisto et al., 1995). Later the word referred to the dried
leaves and flowers of cannabis. Residents of India distinguish among three
forms: bhang, ganja, and charas. Bhang is the dried leaves of the plant,
comparable to marijuana. People smoke these leaves or combine them
with milk and spices to form a drink that is also called bhang. Ganja refers
to the sap-carrying tops of female plants in India, but in Jamaica the term
applies to the leaves as well. Charas is hashish, the dried resin separated
from the flowers and pressed together (McKim, 1997).
Many legends surround hashish. A well-known report concerns an ex-
otic technique for collecting resin. Harvesters allegedly pranced naked
through sunny fields of cannabis, gathering shiny sap and scraping it gen-
tly from their bodies to form cakes. These tales sound like contemporary
urban legends or a marketing strategy for modern dealers. Nevertheless,
comparable stories appeared as early as the 1850s. Most reporters from
that era found workers who wore leather aprons to catch resin as they
ran through fields. These workers then told of naked harvesting in other
locations (Johnston, 1855; Von Bibra, 1855).
Stories like these may have been an attempt to fool outsiders, similar
to the way children from farms tell children from the city that chasing a
cow will turn her milk to cottage cheese. Perhaps poorer gatherers of
hashish resin could not afford leather aprons. Whatever the arrangement
in the past, modern hashish production does not employ naked trips
through fields. Instead, manufacturers shake the resinous glands from the
Cannabis Pharmacology 127

plants and press it into hash. Others simply form blocks by pressing hash
oil into powdered cannabis.
In addition to ganja, bhang, and charas or hashish, hash oil also appears
in the illicit drug market. Producers create this viscous liquid by boiling
hashish or cannabis in a solvent, straining it through a filter, and then
letting the solvent evaporate, leaving the oil. The process can be ex-
tremely dangerous given the flammability of the solvents, which usually
include alcohol or ether (Gold, 1989). The risk may prove worthwhile
because hash oil commands higher prices. The oil has the potential to
generate huge profits because it is relatively compact and easy to smuggle.
It is often more potent than hashish or cannabis, too. Yet hash oil is not
particularly popular. Smoking the oil by itself can require special glass
pipes as part of a messy and cumbersome process. The solvents used to
form the oil may be unhealthy to smoke. Most users find hashish or
cannabis easier to ingest and potent enough to create the effects they
desire (Clarke, 1998).
Synthetic cannabinoids also exist; they are usually ingested orally.
Dronabinol (Marinol), a synthetic version of THC suspended in sesame
oil, can treat poor appetite, nausea, and vomiting (e.g., Lefkowtiz et al.,
1995). Current studies also address dronabinol’s efficacy as a treatment
for spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis and pain after surgery
(Hanigan, Destree, & Truong, 1986). Some initial work also suggests that
this drug might help disturbed behavior in Alzheimer’s patients (Volicer
et al., 1997). The abuse potential for this substance appears to be min-
imal. It is the only cannabinoid approved for medical use in the United
States. Nabilone (Cesamet), an analogue of THC available in the United
Kingdom, also limits nausea, vomiting, and spasticity (e.g., Steel et al.,
1980). Levonantradol, another synthetic THC analogue unavailable in
the United States, shows some promise in treating acute surgical pain,
nausea, and vomiting (Jain et al., 1981; Tyson et al., 1985). Apparently,
no pharmaceutical company has pursued its development as a medication
(IOM, 1999). The medicinal uses of these synthetic cannabinoids appear
in more detail in chapter 8.


Cannabis preparations vary dramatically in their effects. The most com-

mon indicator of potency is the percentage of delta-9 tetrahydrocannab-
128 Understanding Marijuana

inol (THC). Although THC is not the only source of psychoactive effects
in the plant, it is the most abundant chemical that clearly alters subjective
experience. Hashish typically contains 20% THC, with some estimates
as high as 50%. Hash oil can contain up to 70% THC. Yet each of these
products can vary dramatically in potency. Some samples of hash oil and
hashish contain no THC at all. These products with no THC obviously
create few subjective effects, except for those that arise from expectancy.
Hashish and hash oil with the highest potencies often cause the most
dramatic experiences of intoxication.
Marijuana also shows considerable variation in potency depending
upon the plant strain, growing conditions, and storage. Some varieties of
plants contain more THC than others. Cannabis sativa used for industrial
hemp often contains less than 1% THC. Smoking marijuana this low in
potency does not change subjective experience. Marijuana with less than
1% THC has the same effects as a placebo (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).
Thus, hemp products are not psychoactive. No one will grow intoxicated
from smoking the various shampoos, soaps, or clothes currently manu-
factured from these plants. Psychoactive strains of marijuana typically
contain 2 to 5% THC, but concentrations as high as 22% have been
documented (Iversen, 2000). The moisture and temperature of the grow-
ing season can alter potency. Storage in hot environments can degrade
the cannabinoids and lower THC content (Clarke, 1998). Exposure to
light also accelerates the breakdown of THC. A year of storage in a bright
place can produce nearly three times the decrease in THC as a year of
storage in a dark place (Brazis & Mathre, 1997).
Many media reports suggest that cannabis has increased in potency
quite dramatically in recent years. These reports have generated consid-
erable debate. Yet the magnitude of the increase is difficult to document.
In addition, the tacit assumption that increased potency translates into
greater danger from the drug may not be true. Reports of a stronger drug
actually began over 30 years ago. By the middle of the 1980s, some
authors suggested that marijuana’s potency had increased by a factor of
100 (MacDonald, 1984). These claims clearly suffered from exaggeration
or misinformation. Other arguments about increased potency arose from
the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project. This program
reports the average THC content of cannabis taken in drug arrests. Es-
timates were extremely low in the 1970s, sometimes below 1%. As dis-
cussed above, cannabis with this little THC has no impact on subjective
experience. The idea that a drug with no effects would increase in pop-
Cannabis Pharmacology 129

ularity over the years makes little sense. Thus, these estimates from the
1970s were probably poor reflections of the amount of THC in marijuana
available at the time.
Investigators hypothesize that the data from the Potency Monitoring
Project underestimate the true amount of THC in marijuana from the
1970s. First, the estimates were based on very few samples of seized
cannabis. In some years there were no more than 50 samples to analyze
(Potency Monitoring Project [PMP], 1974–1996). In addition, police
may have stored the marijuana in hot lockers that allowed the THC to
degrade rapidly (Mikuriya & Aldrich, 1988). Despite the small samples
and poor storage, the average THC content in 1976 was 2% (ElSohly,
Holley, & Turner, 1985).
An alternative source of potency information, an independent labo-
ratory in California, analyzed many more samples than the Potency Mon-
itoring Project and found a large range in THC concentration. In 1973,
this laboratory tested over 100 samples and found that marijuana had an
average THC content of 1.6 % (Ratcliffe, 1974). Later analyses ranged
up to almost 8% THC (Perry, 1977). Thus, the idea that all cannabis of
the 1970s had less than 1% THC seems unlikely. Ratcliffe’s (1974) es-
timate of 1.6% may be conservative but credible; the 1976 estimate of
2% may be closer to the truth.
Potency data from the 1980s through the middle of the 1990s suggest
that THC content continued to vary dramatically from strain to strain
and sample to sample. With improved storage techniques and much
larger samples, the Potency Monitoring Project found THC concentra-
tions varied from 2% to almost 4%. Average concentrations approached
4% THC in 1984, 1988, 1990, and 1991 (PMP, 1974–1996). Trends in
the rest of the 1990s showed comparable THC content, with a peak
around 4.5% THC in 1997. Other cannabinoids like cannabinol and can-
nabidiol have not increased in concentration over the years (ElSohly et
al., 2000). Thus, claims of 1,000% (Cohen, 1979) or 10,000% (Mac-
Donald, 1984) increases in marijuana potency are clearly inaccurate. A
threefold increase from approximately 1.5% in the early 1970s to 4.5%
in the late 1990s may be closer to the truth. A simple doubling from an
average of 2% to an average of 4% also seems plausible.
Although many media reports warn that increased potency translates
into greater danger, data suggest otherwise. The implications of a two or
threefold increase in THC concentration remain unclear. Marijuana with
greater amounts of THC may not prove more hazardous than weaker
130 Understanding Marijuana

cannabis. First, acute administration of the drug is essentially nontoxic.

No one has ever died from THC poisoning. Smoking enough cannabis to
ingest a lethal amount of THC may be physically, if not financially, im-
Estimates of a fatal dose of any drug arise from some rather gruesome
animal research. Different groups of animals receive large amounts of a
drug until a particular dosage kills 50% of them. Researchers refer to the
dose that is lethal for 50% of the animals as the LD 50. Investigators
then extrapolate from these data to estimate a lethal dose for humans.
The LD 50 for THC is approximately 125 mg for every kilogram of body
weight (Nahas, 1986). Thus, a 160-pound (approximately 73-kilogram)
person would need 9,125 mg of THC to have a 50% chance of dying. A
typical marijuana cigarette weighs one gram and contains roughly 20 mg
of THC, suggesting that roughly 450 joints would prove fatal. Further-
more, at least 50% of the THC is destroyed in the burning process or
lost to sidestream smoke. Given this loss, 900 joints would be a more
appropriate estimate of a fatal amount (Doweiko, 1999). The 900 joints
would weigh roughly 2 pounds. Although experienced users tell many
exaggerated tales about smoking large amounts of cannabis, this dosage
exceeds 100 times the quantity typically consumed by the heaviest users.
Given the limited fear of lethal overdose, marijuana with larger per-
centages of THC may actually have some benefits. Stronger cannabis may
lead to smoking smaller amounts in order to achieve desired effects.
Smoking smaller quantities could provide some protection against the
health problems normally associated with inhaling smoke. Smokers may
take smaller, shorter puffs when using more potent marijuana (Heish-
man, Stitzer, & Yingling, 1989). Smoking less may decrease the amount
of tars and noxious gases inhaled, limiting the risk for mouth, throat, and
lung damage (Matthias, Tashkin, Marques-Magallanes, Wilkins, & Sim-
mons, 1997). Obviously, avoiding smoke completely would eliminate
these problems. Thus, eating cannabis products may have fewer negative
consequences than smoking them. Comparisons between these two ways
of administering the drug appear next.

Cannabinoid Administration

A thorough understanding of marijuana’s effects requires some knowl-

edge of how it enters a biological system. Drugs can penetrate the body
Cannabis Pharmacology 131

in many ways. Humans inject drugs intramuscularly (into muscles) or

intravenously (into veins). They also inject subcutaneously (under the
skin), a process known as “skin popping.” People snort drugs intranasally.
Some substances can be absorbed sublingually by placing them under the
tongue. A few drugs can dissolve through the skin in transdermal admin-
istration, like the ubiquitous nicotine patch. None of these methods is
particularly common for marijuana. Cannabis has two popular routes of
administration: inhalation (smoking) and oral ingestion (eating). In ad-
dition, researchers have examined intravenous injections of THC and
rectal administration via the marijuana suppository. Drug companies
have also proposed a deep lung aerosol, a nasal spray, a nasal gel, and a
sublingual preparation of synthetic THC (IOM, 1999).
All these alternative techniques for administering the drug remain rel-
atively rare, but inhalation is quite common. In addition to cannabis,
humans inhale nicotine, opium, crack and freebase cocaine, metham-
phetamine, glue, gasoline, and anesthetics. Inhalation serves as one of the
fastest modes of administration for any drug, and THC is no exception.
Smoke held in the lungs contacts the bloodstream directly through a rich
network of capillaries. This blood travels almost immediately to the brain,
the site of the majority of cannabinoid receptors. Thus, the first hints of
intoxication can appear within 10 seconds of exhaling the smoke (Lev-
inthal, 1999). People may reach their peak blood concentration of THC
while still smoking. The rapid absorption during smoking parallels the
dramatic increases associated with intravenous doses of THC. THC dis-
solves readily in fatty tissues of all sorts, but eventually travels through
the blood to the liver and kidneys. It is subsequently metabolized and
Several factors influence the amount of THC absorbed during smok-
ing. Larger puffs held deeply in the lungs for a long time create the most
dramatic effects. At least 30% of the THC in cannabis disappears in the
combustion of smoking. More cannabinoids escape while the marijuana
cigarette burns between puffs (Davis, McDaniel, Cadwell, & Moody,
1984). Some studies suggest that experienced smokers can take in more
THC than inexperienced ones, that is, they may inhale more efficiently.
Experienced smokers seem to know their lung capacity and understand
the amount of smoke that they can hold without coughing. In contrast,
inexperienced smokers may take larger puffs that they subsequently
cough out, or smaller puffs that do not provide much of the psychoactive
132 Understanding Marijuana

In laboratory studies, heavy users absorbed approximately 27% of the

THC available in a joint; light users absorbed only about 14% (Ohlsson,
et al., 1982; Ohlsson, Agurell, Lindgren, Gillespie, & Hollister, 1985).
The increased efficiency of inhalation in experienced users may account
for a curious phenomenon called reverse tolerance or sensitization. Many
regular users of cannabis report rapid effects at extremely low doses of
the drug. Researchers once posited that people grew more and more
sensitive to the drug with repeated exposure, allowing them to experi-
ence the subjective effects with less and less of the substance.
Limited absorption may contribute to the minimal effects that novice
smokers report the first few times they try cannabis. Many eventually
learn to inhale and report more impact from the drug. Some never learn
to inhale and subsequently run for public office. The amount of THC an
individual assimilates while smoking can vary dramatically. Yet users
rarely complain about an inability to absorb enough THC. The effects of
smoking are rapid, and people can modify their doses quite readily. A
detectable increase in dosage is usually a mere puff or two away. Instead,
complaints related to smoking concern irritation of the mouth, throat,
and lungs. These complaints occasionally lead a smoker to eat marijuana
or hashish instead.
Oral administration has the longest history of all the techniques for
using drugs, beginning with alcohol consumption around 8000 B.C.
(Roueche, 1963). Most substances taken by mouth must travel the entire
gastrointestinal tract, which contains several natural barriers to absorp-
tion. These barriers are important in helping minimize the toxic effects
of many substances. The interior of the stomach, a highly acidic envi-
ronment, can break down a variety of noxious chemicals. Unfortunately,
this environment also neutralizes potentially helpful medications. For ex-
ample, stomach acid destroys insulin, making oral administration of this
drug useless.
Drugs that survive the stomach pass to the small intestine. Membranes
between the intestinal wall and surrounding blood capillaries include two
layers of fat molecules. Thus, only fat-soluble substances pass into these
capillaries, which then send the drug to the liver for further metabolism.
Those drugs that survive the liver metabolism reach general circulation.
Yet entering the bloodstream is no guarantee of reaching the brain. The
blood-brain barrier, a tightly knit bed of capillaries, keeps all but a few
of the most lipid-soluble substances from reaching the brain. This barrier
Cannabis Pharmacology 133

separates the brain from the circulatory system, minimizing the impact
of any potential toxins.
Given all the natural barriers inherent in oral administration, it re-
mains dramatically slower than inhalation. Eating marijuana may create
smaller effects than smoking an equal amount because so much of
the drug breaks down in digestion. Eating cannabis or hashish leads
to delayed, erratic absorption, depending upon the state of the gut
at the time. A gram of cannabis might lead to extreme intoxication
when smoked but hardly alter subjective experience if eaten after a full
The concentration of THC also tends to peak much later after oral
administration than after smoking. Concentrations peak between 1 and
6 hours after eating THC in chocolate cookies and around 2 hours in
sesame oil pills like dronabinol (Ohlsson et al., 1980; Ohlsson et al.,
1985; Wall, Sadler, Brine, Harold, & Perez-Reyes, 1983). In one study,
marijuana-laced brownies led to some effects in 30 minutes, but peak
responses did not occur for 21⁄2 to 31⁄2 hours (Cone, Johnson, Paul, Mell,
& Mitchell, 1988). Cannabis resin eaten in a meat sandwich also took at
least 2 hours to create peak effects (Law, Mason, Moffat, Gleadle, &
King, 1984). Thus, the digestive process decreases the bioavailability of
the drug. Bypassing this digestive process via smoking enhances effects.
The marijuana suppository also bypasses degradation in the liver and
leads to greater availability of THC (Mattes, Shaw, Edling-Owens, En-
gelman, & ElSohly, 1993).
Despite the potential drawbacks of decreased availability and slower
initiation of effects, orally administered marijuana has developed quite a
history. Cannabis products heated in oil or butter and combined with
sweets have served as confections for centuries (Abel, 1980). Modern
recipes for brownies, soup, meatloaf, guacamole, banana bread, and cook-
ies can include cannabis. Hashish recipes for cookies, brownies, and soup
are also quite common (Powell, 1971). Tinctures made from marijuana
soaked in alcohol also provide a vehicle for oral administration. In addi-
tion, dronabinol, the synthetic version of THC dissolved in sesame oil, is
marketed in capsules for easy swallowing. Eating the drug avoids the
obvious throat and mouth irritation and risk for lung problems that ac-
company smoking.
134 Understanding Marijuana

THC Metabolism

The amount of time required to metabolize THC has shown considerable

variation from person to person and study to study. The period required
to eliminate THC from the body should not be confused with the du-
ration of the drug’s psychoactive effects. People stop feeling high long
before THC has left their bodies. Intoxication rarely last more than a
few hours, with orally administered doses lasting longer than smoked
cannabis. After an intravenous injection of THC, blood levels peak al-
most immediately and then decrease by 90% in the first hour. This rapid
drop does not mean that the drug has exited the body; it simply leaves
the blood to dissolve into fat tissue. THC in the blood partitions into fat
tissue, then leaks slowly from fat to be degraded and excreted. Although
media accounts of marijuana’s effects often treat THC’s fat solubility as
a novelty, sedatives like the barbiturates and benzodiazapines are stored
in fat, too. After the first hour, blood levels of THC do not drop as
rapidly. As THC from the blood is eventually excreted in urine and feces,
THC stored in fat returns to circulation, but in doses too small to create
psychoactive effects.
Researchers express the time required to metabolize a drug as its half-
life—the period required to break the dose down to 50% of its original
amount. Suppose the half-life of a hypothetical drug was one day. People
who absorbed 100 mg of this drug would reduce it to 50 mg in one day.
The next day they would again cut the available dose in half, to 25 mg.
The next day would decrease the amount to 12.5 mg, and so on. Zeno’s
paradox would suggest that this consistent splitting in two would actually
never lead to a blood level of zero. The amount would decrease by 50%
repeatedly, growing smaller and smaller, but it would never disappear.
Practically, drugs reach an undetectable concentration after 4.5 or 5 half-
lives (Diaz, 1997).
Estimates of the half-life of THC based on urinary excretion show
incredible variation. Research estimates of THC’s half-life range from as
little as 19 hours (Hunt & Jones, 1980) to as much as 4 days (Johansson,
Arguell, Hollister, & Halldin, 1988). Early work suggested that users
might grow more efficient at metabolizing THC as they gain experience
with the drug (Lemberger, Axelrod, & Kopin, 1971). This study found
a half-life of 28 hours for chronic smokers, but naive users took 57 hours
to metabolize half of the dose. These results had considerable intuitive
Cannabis Pharmacology 135

appeal because they helped explain marijuana tolerance. The authors of

this research implied that people grew tolerant to the drug because they
essentially eliminated it more readily.
In contrast to evidence of increased rates of metabolism in experienced
users, a later study found that people who had received THC each day
for two weeks did not metabolize faster than moderate users who had
not ingested daily doses (Hunt & Jones, 1980). In addition, the study
with the longest estimated half-life used chronic, regular smokers (Jo-
hansson et al., 1988). These results seem confusing in light of the pre-
viously reported shorter half-life for heavier users. Thus, THC’s rate of
metabolism may not increase with repeated use. Most studies show a
half-life between 1 and 1.5 days (Ohlsson et al., 1982; Ohlsson et al.,
1985; Wall et al., 1983). A recent study using an extremely sensitive
measuring technique and a two-week follow-up period found THC half-
life ranges up to 2.5 days (Huestis & Cone, 1998). This study used the
best methods available and suggests that a dose of THC leaves the body
completely after 12 or 13 days.
The extreme variation in the estimates for the half-life of THC may
stem from studying small samples of people over relatively short dura-
tions, using measurement techniques that vary in sensitivity. This large
range of estimates likely reflects individual differences among people.
Some simply metabolize more quickly than others. Techniques that do
not rely on urine samples suggest THC stays in the body even longer.
Analysis of fat cells rather than urine samples has revealed that the drug
can remain in the body up to a month in some people (Johansson, Noren,
Sjovall, & Halldin, 1989). Popular authors imply that this long elimina-
tion period is the norm (DuPont, 1984), but many people metabolize
THC faster. Despite all the variability in elimination periods, marijuana
does appear to have a longer half-life than some other drugs. For ex-
ample, nicotine’s half-life is about 2 hours; caffeine’s is 3 to 6 hours
(Henningfield, Cohen, & Pickworth, 1993). However, some sedatives
that are more fat soluble show half-lives around 2 days or more (Diaz,
1997). Thus, marijuana takes more time to metabolize than some drugs,
but less than others.
Popular authors often misinterpret THC’s long half-life by frequently
implying that intoxication or some sort of residual effect of the drug
remains for weeks at a time. Yet intoxication dissipates in a couple of
hours. The amount of THC released gradually from fat cells does not
create any subjective, cognitive, or emotional effects but may register on
136 Understanding Marijuana

drug tests. Thus, a person may test positive for cannabis even a week or
two after smoking, when all signs of intoxication have clearly terminated
(Zimmer & Morgan, 1997). A number of underground legends suggest
that goldenseal, cranberry juice, or various other concoctions might
shorten this period of testing positive; no systematic research addresses
this question. Drinking enormous quantities of fluids may dilute THC
metabolites in the urine and alter the outcome of a test, but these fluids
do not actually alter metabolic rate (Coombs & West, 1991).

Cannabinoid Receptors

Once cannabinoids enter the body, they must find a site to create their
effects. The quest to understand the biological function of cannabinoids
has generated a large body of research. Initial studies tracked radioactive
THC through the body. This work revealed that THC attached to all the
surfaces of the neuron, suggesting that it might alter the permeability of
cell membranes to create its impact (Makriyannis & Rapaka, 1990). Re-
searchers were familiar with the idea of drugs altering membrane per-
meability because some of alcohol’s effects may stem from a comparable
process (Doweiko, 1999).
Later work revealed that at least some of marijuana’s impact could
not arise solely from changes in the permeability of cell membranes.
Newer studies found that cannabinoids could inhibit the synthesis of an
extremely important compound, cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cyclic
AMP or cAMP), which helps initiate nerve impulses (Howlett, Johnson,
Melvin, & Milne, 1988). Other drugs that work in this way have special
receptors that alter the cAMP. These receptors inhibit adenylyl cyclase
(AC), the enzyme used to make cAMP. Examinations of every receptor
known to inhibit AC revealed that none of them responded to the can-
With all these other receptors ruled out, researchers concluded that
cannabis must work via its own site. Investigators soon identified the
cannabinoid receptor and mapped its distribution in the brain (Bidaut-
Russell, Devane, & Howlett, 1990; Devane, Dysarz, Johnson, Melvin, &
Howlett, 1988 Herkenham et al., 1990). The cannabinoid receptors in
the nervous system, which are known as the CB1 type, are quite nu-
merous. By way of comparison, CB1 receptors are 10 times more abun-
dant than mu opiod receptors, the sites of action for morphine. After
Cannabis Pharmacology 137

researchers identified the CB1 receptor in the brain, other work revealed
a second site of action in the immune system. This receptor was dubbed,
surprisingly, CB2.
Contrary to what we all learned in high school courses on biology, re-
ceptors are not locks that either open or close in response to some key.
The cannabinoid receptors (and all others) are proteins—strings of amino
acids that span the membrane of the cell. Some of the amino acids are
embedded in the cell membrane; some are implanted inside the cell; oth-
ers extend outside. Cannabinoids bind with the portion of the receptor
outside the cell and trigger activity inside. Different cannabinoids bind in
different ways, leading to varied amounts of activity within the nerve cell.
One action triggered by the cannabinoid receptor is the inhibition of
AC and subsequent inhibition of cAMP, as mentioned above. Thus, any
process that requires cAMP will slow down if the cannabinoid receptor
has been activated. The receptor also opens the potassium channels of
the neuron, which decreases its rate of firing. Unlike the potassium chan-
nels, calcium channels close when the cannabinoid receptor activates.
Closed calcium channels decrease the release of neurotransmitters. Thus,
by inhibiting cAMP, slowing the nerve’s firing rate, and decreasing neu-
rotransmitter release, cannabinoids alter the communication between
nerve cells. These actions may account for many of the effects of THC
as well as other cannabinoids.
The cannabinoid receptors and their associated brain systems do not
work in a vacuum. Any alterations of one neurotransmitter can change
the functioning of others. THC clearly creates changes in the dopamine
system, as cocaine, amphetamine, nicotine, and alcohol do (Koob & Le
Moal, 1997). The cannabinoids can enhance dopamine’s activation of
movement, suggesting that they might help treat Parkinson’s disease
(Sanudo-Pena & Walker, 1998). Cannabinoids can inhibit or enhance
gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter that may con-
tribute to alcohol’s sedative effects (Pacheco, Ward, & Childers, 1993;
Shen, Piser, Seybold, & Thayer, 1996). THC also interferes with acetyl-
choline, a neurotransmitter involved in memory. The effect on acetyl-
choline may underlie the memory problems associated with cannabis in-
toxication. Thus, the cannabinoid receptor and related neurotransmitter
systems clearly play an important role in the functioning of the brain.
Human cannabinoid receptors are extremely similar to those found in
rodents, suggesting that evidence from animal studies may apply to peo-
ple (Gerard, Mollereau, Vassart, & Parmentier, 1991). Leeches, mollusks,
138 Understanding Marijuana

Figure 6.6. Anandamide. This cannabinoid occurs naturally in the body. It is

the first endogenous cannabinoid discovered.

chickens, turtles, trout, and fruit flies have cannabinoid receptors, too
(Howlett, Evans, & Houston, 1992; Stefano, Salzet, & Salzet, 1997).
Even a primitive protozoan, the Hydra, has a cannabinoid receptor that
appears to alter its feeding (De Petrocellis, Melck, Bisognor, Milone, &
DiMarzo, 1999). The presence of the receptor in such a wide variety of
species suggests that it must have an important and universal function.
The ubiquitous presence of the CB1 and CB2 receptors inspired a search
for substances within the body that might react at these sites.

The Body’s Own Cannabinoids

It seems unlikely that so many animals would develop receptors simply

to respond to some green weed. The identification of the cannabinoid
receptors inspired the search for the body’s own substances that might
activate them. Studies of the functions of these endogenous cannabinoids
could reveal a lot about how marijuana works, as well as how the brain
works. Several endogenous chemicals appear to interact with the can-
nabinoid receptor. The two studied most are arachidonylethanolamine
(anandamide) and 2-arachidonolyl-glycerol (2-AG), pictured respectively
in figures 6.6 and 6.7.

Figure 6.7. 2-arachidonolyl-glycerol (2-AG). This substance is the most

abundant endogenous cannabinoid.
Cannabis Pharmacology 139

The first cannabinoid identified in the body was dubbed anandamide,

from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “bliss” or “ecstasy” (Devane
et al., 1992). Its actual chemical name is arachidonylethanolamine. As
the name suggests, its components include arachidonic acid and etha-
nolamine. Arachidonic acid serves as the building block of dozens of
other chemicals, including some of those involved in the way aspirin
works. Ethanolamine is related to alcohol. The anadamide molecule does
not particularly resemble THC, but both interact with the cannabinoid
receptors. Other natural compounds work on drug receptors but do not
share the drug’s molecular shape. For example, endorphins, the endog-
enous opiates, do not look much like opium or morphine. Yet they work
at the same sites on the neuron. Clearly, molecules of different shapes
may still connect to the same receptor. The critical aspects of the shape
of the molecule are not known precisely.
Enzymes metabolize anandamide quite quickly, so its duration of ac-
tion is shorter than THC’s. Anandamide creates less intense effects than
THC, perhaps because of this rapid breakdown. It also has only 25 to
50% of THC’s affinity for receptors. Still, anandamide creates some of
the same reactions. For example, this endogenous cannabinoid induces
overeating (Williams & Kirkham, 1999) and lowers activity, body tem-
perature, and pain sensitivity (Fride & Mechoulam, 1993). Researchers
find anandamide in many of the brain areas rich in CB1 receptors, in-
cluding the hippocampus, a structure involved in memory. Thus, this
receptor may play a role in the deficits in short-term memory associated
with marijuana intoxication. CB1 receptors also appear in the cerebel-
lum, a motor center of the brain. The ability of cannabinoids to relieve
spasticity and tremor may involve the receptors in this area (Baker et al.,
Anandamide also appears in the thalamus, a structure involved with
pain and emotion. Oddly, the thalamus has relatively few cannabinoid
receptors. Perhaps anandamide works on other receptors in this structure.
Anandamide works in systems outside the brain as well. It appears in
spleen tissue, which has many CB2 receptors, and acts in the immune
system (IOM, 1999). Anandamide even inhibits the growth of breast
cancer cells (De Petrocellis et al., 1998). Research on anandamide’s exact
functions in the brain and immune system continues.
Several compounds related to anandamide also bind to cannabinoid
receptors, including 2-arachidonolyl-glycerol (2-AG). The compound
2-AG is a prominent constituent of brain tissue, about 170 times more
140 Understanding Marijuana

abundant than anandamide (Stella, Schweitzer, & Piomelli, 1997). It

clearly interacts with both the CB1 and CB2 receptors (Sugiura et al.,
1999; Sugiura et al. 2000). It also alters heart rate and blood pressure in
mice (Jarai et al., 2000). Its exact role in other cannabinoid effects is not
yet clear. Research on the endogenous cannabinoid system progresses
rapidly. Studies have already isolated new substances that bind to can-
nabinoid receptors, but they have not been identified yet. Their precise
biological impact remains unknown.


Marijuana contains more than 400 chemical components; at least 66 of

them are cannabinoids unique to the plant. The most prevalent ones
include delta-9-THC, cannabinol, and cannabidiol. THC causes canna-
bis’s intoxicating effects. Cannabinol has about one-tenth the psychoac-
tive effects of THC. At high doses, it can increase sleep and decrease
body temperature. Cannabinol may decrease THC’s psychoactive effects,
particularly the stimulating aspects of the subjective experience, but it
may also extend the duration of intoxication. Cannabidiol may decrease
anxiety and psychotic symptoms as well as minimize seizures. In com-
bination with THC, cannabidiol may increase THC concentrations, slow
its metabolism, and limit any anxious or paranoid feelings associated with
intoxication. Researchers have identified dozens of other cannabinoids,
many with shapes similar to these three. All are soluble in fat, but their
other chemical properties are not understood completely.
Many different preparations of cannabis exist, including wide varieties
of hashish, hash oil, and marijuana. Their potencies can vary dramatically,
with hashish containing up to 50% THC and hash oil running as high as
70% THC. Cannabis itself is often between 2 and 4% THC, with some
claims of potency reaching markedly higher. Concerns about dramatic
increases in potency over the last 30 years may stem from poorly ana-
lyzed or misrepresentative samples of cannabis from the 1970s. Asser-
tions about increases in potency of 10 to 100 times seem extremely un-
likely. THC concentrations have probably increased by a factor of 2 or
3. These increases may not justify alarm. THC is not toxic at high doses
like alcohol, nicotine, or many other common drugs. High-potency mar-
ijuana may actually minimize risk for lung problems because less is re-
quired to achieve desired effects.
Cannabis Pharmacology 141

Users often smoke cannabis products and occasionally eat them. Re-
searchers are currently experimenting with other ways to administer
THC, including a nasal spray and rectal suppository. Smoke inhalation
provides a rapid absorption of THC into the blood and brain, creating
striking changes in subjective experience that often last a couple of hours.
Ingesting marijuana or hashish requires digestion in the gastrointestinal
tract and liver, delaying and reducing effects but lengthening their du-
ration. Although intoxication rarely lasts more than a few hours, the
complete elimination of THC clearly takes at least a few days. The chem-
ical can remain in fat cells for up to one month. The fat cells eventually
release the THC back into the blood stream, but in quantities too small
to have any subjective effect. The liver breaks down this released THC
and its metabolites are excreted.
In an effort to understand which neurotransmitter systems create
THC’s effects, investigators eventually identified two receptors that re-
spond specifically to the cannabinoids. One receptor (CB1) exists in the
brain and appears in high concentrations in areas involved with memory
and motor control. The other receptor (CB2) is most prevalent in the
immune system. The identification of this new neurotransmitter system
has generated considerable research and reveals that the brain remains
more complex than previously thought. The presence of these receptors
inspired a search for the body’s own chemicals that may activate them.
Research has uncovered two natural cannabinoids; anandamide and
2-AG. These appear to mimic some of THC’s effects, though they are
less potent and have a shorter duration of action. Future research in this
area will likely continue to inform us about the way this drug works as
well as how the brain functions.
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Marijuana’s Health Effects

Concerns about marijuana’s potential impact on health have generated

volumes of research, numerous conferences, and considerable contro-
versy. This chapter addresses marijuana’s toxicity, as well as its impact
on mental illness, the brain, the pulmonary system, reproduction, preg-
nancy, and immune function. In general, the drug is incapable of creating
an overdose. It can exacerbate the symptoms of some mental disorders
but does not appear to cause them. Data fail to show any marijuana-
induced changes in brain structure, but long-term exposure to the drug
alters the way the brain functions during complex tasks. People who
smoke cannabis but not cigarettes have yet to show severe pulmonary
problems like lung cancer or emphysema, but milder respiratory prob-
lems do appear. Large doses of cannabinoids can cause temporary
changes in reproductive hormones and sperm, but these effects reverse
with abstinence. The role of cannabinoids in immune function appears
extremely complex, but data have yet to show that smoking marijuana
increases the rates of infectious disease in humans. Details on each of
these areas appear below.


Media reports highlight tales of increased THC content in new strains of

cannabis, leading some to worry about the potential of a fatal overdose.
Yet cannabis is essentially nontoxic. No one has ever died of THC poi-

144 Understanding Marijuana

soning (Iversen, 2000). Extrapolations from animal research suggest a

lethal dose of THC would require 125 mg of the drug per kilogram of
body weight (Nahas, 1986). A 160-pound (73-kilogram) person would
require 9,125 mg of THC to receive a fatal dose. Most marijuana ciga-
rettes weigh one gram and contain 20 mg of THC. Thus, this 160-pound
person would require all the THC in over 450 joints to reach a lethal
dose. At least 50% of THC, however, is lost to sidestream smoke.
Therefore, a lethal dose would actually require smoking 900 joints. If
some new strain of genetically engineered super cannabis contained 10
times the usual amount of THC, a lethal dose would require 90 joints.
If a user could finish one of these high-powered cannabis cigarettes in 10
minutes, he or she would have to smoke for 15 consecutive hours to
reach a lethal quantity. Thus, even the most devoted pothead with mar-
ijuana of legendary strength could not stumble upon a fatal overdose. In
contrast, alcohol and aspirin poison thousands of people each year (Dow-
eiko, 1999).

Mental Illness

Concerns about marijuana leading to psychological problems are at least

100 years old. When India was a colony, the British government spon-
sored the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, which investigated claims
that cannabis somehow caused an increase in the number of patients in
mental institutions. The commission found that marijuana did not cause
mental illness (Indian Hemp Drugs Commission [IHDC], 1894). These
results were largely ignored. Propaganda from the United States in the
1930s implied that smoking cannabis invariably led to insanity (e.g., Fos-
sier, 1931; Rowell & Rowell, 1939). Modern authors also suggest that
the drug creates mental illnesses, including panic and psychosis (Gorman,
1996; Lapey, 1996). A close look at the data reveals that many people
with psychological problems smoke marijuana, but it does not cause their
disorders. Yet some people with mental illness may find that the drug
aggravates their symptoms. Descriptions of the studies related to this
topic follow.

Anxiety Disorders

Marijuana intoxication can heighten anxiety, but this brief reaction

should not be confused with an anxiety disorder. Anxious reactions are
Marijuana’s Health Effects 145

rare but appear most often in inexperienced users and after eating rather
than smoking cannabis. Inexperienced users are more likely to panic,
particularly if they smoke a great deal in a short time. Eating hashish can
also lead to feeling fearful or alarmed, particularly at high doses. Orally
administered THC may take a couple of hours to create subjective ef-
fects. People who are unaware of this lag often think that their initial
dose is an insufficient amount to alter consciousness. They eat a sufficient
amount but fail to wait long enough for the drug to take effect. Thinking
that they have not consumed enough, they eat more, and later find them-
selves markedly more intoxicated than they had planned. These inadver-
tent overdoses can create many signs of discomfort, including anxiety,
paranoia, and visual hallucinations.
Many experienced users know how to titrate smoked doses to avoid
any adverse emotional responses. They frequently approach cannabis of
unknown strength with caution, smoking a small amount and waiting for
its effects to peak before using more. In addition, adverse reactions to
the drug are temporary. People experiencing marijuana-induced anxiety
usually respond well to simple reassurance. Experienced users find that
the drug actually decreases anxiety (Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997). A re-
cent longitudinal study of more than 800 New Zealanders found no link
between cannabis and either anxiety disorders or depression (McGee,
Williams, Poulton, & Moffitt, 2000). Thus, marijuana seems an unlikely
cause of any clinical anxiety or depressive disorder. Nevertheless, people
who are prone to panic or who find changes in consciousness disturbing
should avoid cannabis and other psychoactive drugs.

Psychotic Disorders

Cannabinoid intoxication can also mimic certain aspects of psychoses like

schizophrenia. These psychotic disorders typically include odd thoughts,
auditory hallucinations, and inappropriate emotions. An odd thought
typical of psychosis must be completely implausible within the person’s
culture. For example, a psychotic individual might have the odd thought
that other people are inserting ideas into his head. Auditory hallucina-
tions usually include hearing voices that do not exist. Inappropriate emo-
tions might include smiling when frightened or sad. Large doses of eaten
marijuana or hashish can create comparable symptoms, but this cannabis
psychosis is not the same as schizophrenia. It usually lacks the formal
thought problems and inappropriate emotions (Basu, Malhotra, Bhagat,
146 Understanding Marijuana

& Varma, 1999). It also dissipates relatively quickly, while schizophrenia

remains a chronic mental illness. Other drugs, particularly the hallucin-
ogens, create these symptoms as well. LSD, mescaline, and psychedelic
mushrooms lead to erratic thoughts and strange speech patterns typically
found in psychotic individuals. Extended use of cocaine or amphetamine
can also lead to the paranoid, irrational behavior common to some forms
of schizophrenia.
These links between marijuana and odd symptoms reveal valuable in-
formation about the way the brain works and suggest that the cannabi-
noid system may be involved in psychotic disorders. Yet they do not
support the idea that cannabis causes mental illness. People with schizo-
phrenia probably will experience fewer problems if they stay away from
all recreational substances, but the drugs do not cause their disorder. For
example, one study of the Swedish military attempted to predict psy-
chotic breaks from marijuana consumption. Users were more than twice
as likely to develop schizophrenia than nonusers. Heavy users (those who
had consumed the drug 50 times or more) were 6 times as likely to
develop schizophrenia. Yet those who smoked marijuana used a variety
of other drugs, which could have easily exacerbated symptoms, too. This
study also did not note if people had experienced symptoms prior to
their drug use. Perhaps people had odd symptoms but did not experience
a psychotic break for years. In that time they may have happened to
smoke marijuana. They may have even sought the drug because of their
initial odd symptoms (Andreasson, Allebeck, & Rydberg, 1989).
Other work suggests that symptoms precede rather than follow mar-
ijuana consumption (Thornicroft, 1990). Perhaps psychotic individuals
are more likely to experiment with cannabis. Another argument against
the idea that marijuana causes schizophrenia concerns the prevalence of
cannabis use and psychotic disorders. If marijuana caused schizophrenia,
rates of the disorder should increase with the prevalence of the use of
the drug. In fact, schizophrenia is no more prevalent during historical
periods of extensive cannabis consumption than at any other time (Hall
& Solowij, 1998). These findings suggest marijuana probably does not
cause schizophrenia.
Although the drug does not cause the disorder, marijuana may exac-
erbate psychotic symptoms in schizophrenics. A few studies have found
that people with schizophrenia use cannabis frequently, often prior to
psychotic episodes (Linzen, Dingemans, & Lenior, 1994; Thornicroft,
1990). Schizophrenics also report preferring cannabis to other illicit drugs
Marijuana’s Health Effects 147

(Dixon, Haas, Weiden, Sweeney, & Frances, 1991). Psychotics who use
cannabis regularly have more hospitalizations and worse symptoms (Cas-
pari, 1999). Some authors suggest that the disorder may involve the en-
dogenous cannabinoid system. Evidence for this connection comes from
spinal taps that reveal higher levels of endogenous cannabinoids in schi-
zophrenics. Thus, psychotic problems may stem from dysfunctions in this
neurotransmitter system (Leweke, Giuffrida, Wurster, Emrich, & Piom-
elli, 1999). Further work on this topic can reveal a great deal about the
role of cannabinoids in brain function. The cannabinoid system obviously
plays an important part in our experience of consciousness. If this system
goes awry, people may show psychotic symptoms.

Antisocial Behavior

Other data confirm the idea that mental illness may contribute to can-
nabis consumption rather than marijuana creating mental illness. Mari-
juana may not cause mental illness, but people with mental illness may
use a lot of marijuana. A commendable longitudinal study of more than
800 New Zealanders found that those who had mental health problems
at age 15 were more likely to smoke marijuana at age 18. This finding
might suggest some form of self-medication. People experiencing symp-
toms might turn to marijuana for relief. The disorders most likely to
predict later cannabis use were those most associated with breaking rules
in general—conduct disorder and oppositional-defiant disorder. These
two childhood problems stereotypically include a disregard for regula-
tions and authority. This finding suggests that adolescents with little re-
spect for the law are more likely to break it by smoking cannabis.
Although mental illness at age 15 led to more marijuana use at age
18, marijuana use at age 15 did not lead to mental health problems at
age 18. At least for these ages, mental health had a bigger effect on
cannabis consumption than cannabis consumption had on mental health.
As participants grew older, the links between mental illness and cannabis
changed. Although mental illness at age 15 predicted marijuana use at
age 18, mental illness at age 18 did not predict cannabis use at age 21.
Perhaps mental illness only increases cannabis use at a specific stage of
One finding from this study initially appears consistent with the idea
that marijuana increased mental illness. For men only, smoking marijuana
at age 18 predicted specific kinds of mental health problems at age 21.
148 Understanding Marijuana

Smoking marijuana did not lead to anxiety or depression. Instead, men

who smoked marijuana at age 18 were more likely to show cannabis
dependence, alcohol problems, and antisocial personality disorder at age
21 (McGee et al., 2000). These data must be interpreted with caution.
The idea that drug use at one age predicts drug problems at a later age
is not new. Longer use of cannabis may increase the chance of problems
with that drug or alcohol. These findings may not fit most people’s idea
of marijuana causing insanity, but the more cannabis a young man con-
sumes, the more likely he is to develop dependence on it or alcohol.
The results concerning antisocial personality disorder may be a bit
more complex. The study reports that smoking cannabis at age 18 pre-
dicted antisocial personality disorder at age 21. It is important to under-
stand the diagnosis of antisocial personality in order to interpret this find-
ing. Personality disorders refer to enduring, long-term characteristics that
may last a lifetime. Yet antisocial personality disorder cannot be diag-
nosed before age 18. This diagnosis developed from definitions of psy-
chopathy and sociopathy and typically involves a lifelong history of ag-
gression, crime, and lying. Antisocial personality disorder is very much
like an adult version of conduct disorder. In fact, to receive the diagnosis
of antisocial personality, one must have had conduct disorder during
childhood. Some men in this study may have had the traits of this per-
sonality disorder all their lives.
Conduct disorder is one of the problems that predicted marijuana
consumption when the men were younger. They could not receive the
diagnosis of antisocial personality until they were old enough, but they
were already destroying property, getting in fights, and using drugs. Thus,
cannabis use was probably a simple part of their general tendency to
disregard rules. Although marijuana use may precede the diagnosis of
antisocial personality, this situation may arise because the disorder cannot
be diagnosed until age 18. The marijuana use actually may serve as more
of a correlate of underlying deviance and disrespect for the law. Cannabis
may not cause psychopathy, but psychopaths often smoke cannabis.

The Brain
Structural Damage

Careful research on humans shows no structural changes associated with

chronic cannabis exposure in adulthood. One of the first studies to ad-
Marijuana’s Health Effects 149

dress this question used a controversial technique (air encephalography)

to measure the size of brain ventricles in 10 young men who complained
of neurological symptoms after smoking cannabis regularly for up to 11
years. This study revealed larger ventricles in these users relative to a
control group, suggesting that their brains had atrophied (Campbell,
Evans, Thomson, & Williams, 1971). The results received widespread
media attention. Critics of the study emphasized that the cannabis users
had also consumed many other drugs. Critics also explained that the
technique employed does not provide accurate assessments of brain vol-
ume. Subsequent work using improved measurements failed to replicate
these findings, suggesting no cerebral atrophy in chronic cannabis users
(Stefanis, 1976). These new data, however, received little media atten-
Computer assisted tomography (CAT) scans provided more accurate
measurements of brain structure, with none of the controversy that ac-
companied air encephalography. Using this improved technique, a study
of a dozen people who had consumed 5 joints per day for 5 years showed
no evidence of cerebral atrophy (Co, Goodwin, Gado, Mikhael, & Hill,
1977). Another study of 19 people who consumed 25 to 62 joints per
month for at least a year found no irregularities in their CAT scans
(Kuehnle, Mendelson, & David, 1977).
A third project examined CAT scans in a dozen users who had smoked
at least a gram of cannabis per day for between 6 and 20 years. Again,
researchers found no evidence of structural damage or cerebral atrophy
(Hannerz & Hindmarsh, 1983). A recent study using magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI), a relatively new technique with improved accuracy for
measuring tissue volume, unexpectedly found larger brain ventricles in
nonusers—as if the marijuana had somehow protected the brains of
smokers from atrophy. This study found no abnormalities in the brains
of users, even though they smoked cannabis twice a day for at least 2
years (Block, O’Leary, Ehrhardt, et al., 2000). Despite these findings, no
one suggested that marijuana protected people from cerebral atrophy.
In contrast to all of these studies that found no structural changes in
adults, adolescent users of marijuana may alter the development of their
brains. In a new study using MRI, researchers reported smaller brains, a
lower percentage of gray matter, and a higher percentage of white matter
in adults who started smoking marijuana before age 17 (Wilson et al.,
2000). This result is particularly alarming because it may indicate inter-
rupted brain development rather than atrophy. THC may have impaired
150 Understanding Marijuana

the natural changes in brain structure that accompany adolescence. Some

of these structural differences are consistent with the idea that THC’s
impact on certain hormones may interfere with natural changes in the
The participants who started smoking earlier also had smaller bodies,
which is consistent with arrested development. The men who started
smoking before age 17 weighed an average of 20 pounds less and were
an average of 3 inches shorter. The women weighed 7 pounds less but
were equal in height. The differences in brain structure did not correlate
with the number of years of use. This result suggests that cannabis ex-
posure during a critical period might interfere with brain development,
but further exposure after that period may have little additional impact.
This study does not offer conclusive proof that marijuana created
these structural changes in the brains of young users. Participants were
not randomly assigned to smoke cannabis before age 17. A subset of
individuals with smaller brains may have chosen to use the drug. More
important, those who started using marijuana earlier also used more of
other illicit drugs. Some other drug may have had this impact on brain
structure. In addition, the sample was relatively small (57 people). A
replication with a large sample of users who did not differ on other drug
consumption could prove very helpful. Despite these caveats, the poten-
tial for interference in brain development offers more support for the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law’s recommen-
dation that cannabis use not begin before adulthood (NORML, 1996a).

Brain Function

Although advanced techniques in brain imaging reveal that those who

start cannabis use in adulthood show no marijuana-induced changes in
brain structure, chronic cannabis consumption might alter brain function.
New measures of function include brain imaging techniques that measure
blood flow and metabolism. Other approaches use the electroencepha-
logram to assess brain waves, which relate to the way that people process
information. These measures are more sensitive to changes in the brain
that do not involve flagrant alteration in anatomy. They also reveal
marijuana-related changes that did not appear in MRIs or CAT scans.
Cannabis researchers have examined cerebral blood flow (CBF) and
brain metabolism, particularly in the cerebellum. This brain structure
contains many cannabinoid receptors. It also plays an important role in
Marijuana’s Health Effects 151

the perception of time, which usually goes awry during cannabis intox-
ication. Thus, it seemed a prime target for altered function in chronic
cannabis users. The first study of this type revealed reduced blood flow
throughout the brain for 9 chronic, heavy smokers who had used can-
nabis for 10 years. These results were confounded, however, because
some participants took benzodiazepines before the assessment procedure.
Benzodiazepines clearly limit cerebral blood flow, which may account for
these results (Solowij, 1998; Tunving, Thulin, Risberg, & Warkentin,
A different study, which avoided any problem with benzodiazepines,
revealed that experienced users had lower CBF than controls (Mathew
& Wilson, 1992). Other researchers studied 17 people who smoked an
average of 17 times per week for at least 2 years and found decreased
CBF in the cerebellum (Block, O’Leary, Hichwa, et al., 2000). Another
study using positron emission tomography (PET), a nuclear imaging tech-
nique, revealed lower metabolic activity in the cerebellum for 8 chronic
users who smoked at least weekly for over 5 years (Volkow et al., 1996).
Although not all studies of this type reveal differences, the sum of these
data suggest that frequent, chronic consumption of cannabis has a de-
tectable impact on the functioning of the cerebellum, lowering blood
flow and metabolism in the area.
The meaning of the decreases in CBF and metabolism is not particu-
larly clear. During marijuana intoxication, people usually show increased
blood flow to the cerebellum. Perhaps chronic exposure to THC leads
the brain to adapt. Heightened cerebellar blood flow may lead the brain
to decrease the number of cannabinoid receptors. Research on animals is
consistent with this idea. This decrease or down-regulation in receptors
may then lead to reduced blood flow to the cerebellum. Chronic smokers
can then normalize the blood flow to the cerebellum by using cannabis,
and the process might repeat itself. Experienced users might need to
smoke simply to normalize the blood flow to the cerebellum. Further
work might examine if reduced cerebral blood flow serves as the source
of continued cannabis consumption. New research with functional MRI,
which can examine the workings of the brain during cognitive tasks,
might reveal reductions of cerebellar blood flow during craving for can-
nabis, followed by increases in blood flow during administration.
Other studies of cannabis and brain function focus on the electroen-
cephalograph (EEG), an indicator of brain waves. Chronic exposure to
large doses of cannabis clearly alters the EEG in animals (Solowij, 1998).
152 Understanding Marijuana

Initial studies in chronic human users showed no abnormalities as long

as participants were not intoxicated (Rubin & Comitas, 1975; Karacan
et al., 1976; Stefanis, 1976). Nevertheless, critics of this work emphasize
that these studies focused on the most functional users and failed to use
modern analytic techniques. Other studies reveal deviant EEGs in
chronic users, but results do not appear consistently. Some studies report
more of certain types of brain waves in chronic users. Others report less
of the same waves. Still others show no differences at all (Solowij, 1998).
Details of these studies follow.
The most consistent effect of chronic marijuana consumption on EEG
involves alterations in alpha waves in the frontal cortex. Alpha waves
cycle at 7.5 to 12.5 hertz and usually indicate a state of quiet relaxation.
People with an average of 10 years of daily marijuana use show more
power in these alpha waves. Their frontal alpha waves also show greater
coherence, meaning that the left and right sides of their brains seem to
emit these waves at the same time. The meaning of this greater coher-
ence in brain waves remains unclear. Greater brain wave coherence may
mean a state of relaxation, sedation, or inattentiveness. Participants in
this study had refrained from using cannabis for 24 hours, so it is unlikely
that this effect stems from intoxication. These increases in frontal alpha
waves parallel the effects of acute THC intoxication (Struve et al., 1999).
Several studies reveal that alpha waves increase after THC ingestion,
particularly during periods of subjective euphoria (e.g., Lukas, Mendel-
son, & Benedikt, 1995). Perhaps chronic users eventually feel intoxicated,
even in the absence of the drug, and show brain waves that parallel the
intoxicated state even during sobriety.
Chronic cannabis users have also shown deviant EEGs in response to
certain difficult tasks. Lights, tones, and other events can elicit changes
in brain waves when people attend to them. These event-related poten-
tials reveal that chronic users do not process information as efficiently as
nonusers or ex-users. They also may be more distractible. For example,
in a series of studies, participants tried to distinguish among very similar
tones. They were instructed to press a button in response to one type of
tone (the target), but do nothing in response to the others. People who
smoked 2 to 7 times per week for an average of 10 years performed more
poorly on this task. They failed to press the button on some of the targets
and accidentally pressed it in response to some of the nontarget tones.
They also showed deviant brain waves in response to the tones.
In this study, the brain waves of chronic users suggested that they had
Marijuana’s Health Effects 153

difficulty discriminating between tones. Nonusers showed large brain

wave changes in reaction to the target tones, but no changes in response
to the other tones. Compared to the nonusers, chronic users showed less
of a change in reaction to the targets and more of a change in reaction
to the irrelevant tones. These results suggest that chronic users have trou-
ble separating the relevant from the irrelevant; they do not process in-
formation as efficiently. Ex-users who averaged 2 years of abstinence
showed some recovery in their brain waves but still had deviant event-
related potentials when compared to nonusers.
Another type of event-related potential that appears to vary with
chronic cannabis consumption is called the P50. The P50 is a positive
brain wave that appears about 50 milliseconds after people hear a clicking
sound. When two clicks are presented quickly, one right after the other,
an interesting phenomenon occurs. The brain generates a normal P50
wave to the first click, but because the person is still processing the first
click, the P50 to the second click is smaller than usual. It’s as if the brain
filters out some aspect of the second click while it processes the first one.
The smaller response to the second click is sometimes referred to as
gating, as if the brain closes a gate while processing the first click so that
new information from the second click does not interfere.
Some people are better at gating than others. People with poor gating
often report many intrusive thoughts, as if too much information reaches
their brain at one time. For example, people with schizophrenia often
report hearing voices or having racing, tangential thoughts. They also
show reduced P50 gating. Yet the medications that alleviate their symp-
toms can also improve their P50 gating (Light, Geyer, Clementz, Cad-
enhead, & Braff, 2000). Combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic
stress disorder, a condition that typically includes intrusive thoughts with
aversive content, also show reduced P50 gating (Neylan et al., 1997).
The exact meaning of this event-related response is unknown, but it sug-
gests problems in processing information. People who show this type of
information processing deficit may have problems filtering out extraneous
information when they try to concentrate.
Chronic users of cannabis also have reduced gating (Patrick et al.,
1999). In this study, users had smoked an average of 13 joints per week
for an average of 13.5 years. The researchers carefully interviewed these
users to ensure that they did not have a psychiatric disorder that might
have created deviant brain waves. The users showed significantly less P50
gating than the nonusers. These people may have had deviant gating prior
154 Understanding Marijuana

to their use of marijuana, but the data are consistent with the idea that
cannabis altered their brain function. Only a longitudinal study that ran-
domly assigns people to smoke marijuana can reveal if the drug is the
actual source of the different information processing. Nevertheless, these
data suggest that chronic marijuana smokers might be more distractible
or have more intrusive thoughts. A replication of this study and research
on the subjective experience of consciousness in chronic users might re-
veal more about this phenomenon.
These data from studies of cerebral blood flow, EEG, and event-
related potentials all suggest that information processing and brain func-
tions alter after chronic consumption of cannabis. Some functions may
recover after extended periods of abstinence. The practical implications
of these changes remain unclear. Subtle deviations in brain function have
not translated into deficits on meaningful tasks in daily life. Nevertheless,
this evidence supports the idea that the drug alters the way people pro-
cess information. These measures may be markedly more sensitive than
cognitive and neuropsychological tests that reveal few cannabis-induced
deficits. Subtle changes in cognitive processing may precede more dra-
matic problems in brain function, providing a warning to heavy users to
stop before obvious cognitive deficits might develop.

The Pulmonary System


People who smoke cannabis but not cigarettes rarely experience lung
problems. Yet the potential for marijuana-induced pulmonary troubles
remains. Conclusive proof of marijuana’s negative impact on the lungs
of humans will require decades of research. Inhaled particles, gases, and
heat take time to create disease. Comparable challenges arose in the quest
to prove that cigarettes caused lung problems, a task that required nearly
40 years of work. More people die from smoking tobacco than any other
single cause. Tobacco smoke and cannabis smoke are very comparable,
suggesting that the potential for both to contribute to lung disease is very
high (Iversen, 2000). Widespread marijuana smoking did not appear in
some countries until fairly recently. Many chronic cannabis smokers are
still too young to experience severe pulmonary problems. Nevertheless,
chronic users of cannabis do show adverse respiratory symptoms, includ-
ing cough, phlegm, wheezing, and bronchitis. They also show changes in
Marijuana’s Health Effects 155

their bronchial cells that parallel those seen in the early stages of lung
cancer (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).

Respiratory Illness

Current studies have found little evidence of marijuana-induced increases

in respiratory illnesses. A review of a large sample of hospital records
revealed that 36% of daily marijuana smokers saw a physician for colds,
flu, or bronchitis in a six-year period. Only slightly fewer (33%) of the
nonsmokers sought treatment for these same problems (Polen, 1993).
These data suggest that cannabis consumption does not create meaningful
increases in the rates of respiratory illnesses. Nevertheless, other work
reveals more symptoms of bronchitis, including chronic cough and
phlegm production, in heavy marijuana smokers. A study of daily can-
nabis users who did not smoke cigarettes showed that they had a higher
rate of these symptoms than nonsmokers. Tobacco smokers and people
who smoked both substances showed more of these symptoms, too
(Tashkin et al., 1987). Another study confirmed these results but found
that people who smoked both tobacco and marijuana were more likely
to develop bronchitis than those who smoked only one or the other
(Bloom, Kaltenborn, Paoletti, Camilli, & Leibowitz, 1987). Thus,
chronic, heavy use of cannabis can create respiratory problems compa-
rable to those that tobacco creates.

Lung Function

Research concerning marijuana’s impact on lung function has produced

mixed results. One study of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
(COPD), a disorder of the lung airways, found no difference between
marijuana smokers and nonsmokers. This work relied on a measure of
the volume of air that people can expel from their lungs in one second.
People who can force more air from their lungs have fewer obstructions
in their respiratory tracts. Consumers of tobacco cigarettes invariably
show more and more obstructions each year that they smoke, suggesting
blocked airways. Yet people who had smoked 2 to 3 marijuana joints per
day for 15 years did not differ significantly from others who did not
smoke at all (Tashkin, Simmons, Sherrill, & Coulson, 1997). These re-
sults suggest that cannabis use may not lead to emphysema.
In contrast, a study of people who smoked an average of one joint per
156 Understanding Marijuana

day revealed significant impairment in lung function (Bloom et al., 1987).

There were no obvious differences between these two samples to account
for the different effects. Thus, marijuana may or may not meaningfully
impair the functions of the lungs. Further work can help illuminate the
impact of the drug on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Lung Airway Problems

A number of problems with the airways of the lung can appear during
examinations with a bronchoscope. This assessment technique can reveal
damage that occurs prior to obvious deficits in lung function. Visual in-
spections of the lungs revealed that people who smoked 5 joints a week
for 2 years had more redness, swelling, and mucous. People who smoked
both cannabis and tobacco had particularly bad symptoms (Roth et al.,
1998). Thus, even without creating emphysema, marijuana can alter the
bronchial tract.
Biopsies taken from some of these people revealed that marijuana
smokers had more abnormal cells in their lungs. For example, many lung
cells normally have cilia, small hairs that help clear the lungs of particles.
In cannabis smokers, many of these ciliated cells had transformed into
cells more similar to skin. The changes were particularly common among
people who smoked both cannabis and tobacco. These sorts of cellular
transformations are particularly alarming because they may be the begin-
nings of the development of lung cancer.


Currently, no data reveal definitive increases in rates of lung cancer

among people who smoke marijuana but not tobacco. A retrospective
study of over 64,000 patients showed no increases in risk for many types
of cancer once alcohol and cigarette use were controlled (Sidney, Que-
senberry, Friedman, & Tekawa, 1997). Nevertheless, a few lines of re-
search suggest that cases of cannabis-induced lung cancer may appear in
the years ahead. THC is not carcinogenic itself. Yet when isolated cells
are exposed to marijuana smoke, they change in ways that parallel the
early stages of cancer (Leuchtenberger, 1983). Biopsies taken from the
lung tissue of cannabis users reveal cellular changes that could lead to
tumors (Roth et al., 1996). A number of reports suggest considerable
marijuana use among young people with cancers of the lung, oral cavity,
Marijuana’s Health Effects 157

and esophagus (IOM, 1999). These data are comparable to early studies
of tobacco and cancer and suggest that cannabis smoke is capable of
damaging the bronchial system in ways that may lead to tumors.

Pulmonary Harm Reduction

Drug lore suggests that certain strategies may minimize marijuana’s po-
tential harm to the lungs. These include ingesting the drug orally, using
water pipes or vaporizers, refraining from holding smoke down in the
lungs for extended periods, and smoking stronger cannabis. Research sug-
gests that results for some of these strategies are mixed. Obviously, eating
marijuana or hashish will have no impact on the respiratory system. Wa-
ter pipes that cool the smoke will decrease the negative effects of heat.
Yet despite popular belief, water pipes do not appear to decrease the
amount of tar and particles in smoke (Doblin, 1994). In addition, these
pipes may filter out some of the THC, leading users to smoke more
cannabis than they might without a pipe. Smoking more may create in-
creased deposits of tar and particles in the lungs. Thus, the water pipe is
not a panacea for all cannabis-induced respiratory problems. Its cooling
properties may help limit lung damage caused by heat, but other effects
are limited.
Another gadget designed to lower exposure to carcinogens is the va-
porizer. This pipe uses a hot plate to heat marijuana to the point where
cannabinoids vaporize. This temperature should be below the level
where carcinogenic hydrocarbons burn. Users can then inhale the vapor,
which ideally would contain more THC with fewer contaminants and
less tar. Counter to the intentions of the inventors of this machine, it
creates a vapor with an unusually low amount of the psychoactive THC
and a high amount of the less active cannabinol. An unfiltered joint ac-
tually provides a better ratio of THC to tar. Although the benefits of
cooler smoke remain, the vaporizer is not the ideal preventer of
marijuana-induced lung problems either (Gieringer, 1996).
An additional strategy for reducing lung damage associated with smok-
ing concerns the length of time users keep smoke inside their bodies. The
common habit of holding smoke in the lungs for long periods likely in-
creases tar deposits, which undoubtedly add to respiratory problems. Al-
though many experienced users swear by this habit, two studies show
that holding “hits” longer does not appear to lead to greater changes in
mood (Zacny & Chait, 1989, 1991). Holding one’s breath without in-
158 Understanding Marijuana

haling any smoke at all can certainly lead to a light-headed, dizzy expe-
rience of consciousness easily confused with marijuana’s effects. For ex-
ample, one study revealed that holding one’s breath for a long time
altered cognitive abilities even when smoking a placebo (Block, Farin-
pour, & Braverman, 1992). Thus, users who are committed to holding
their breath might find that exhaling cannabis smoke beforehand could
lead to comparable changes in mood with markedly less risk of lung
damage. Otherwise, exhaling soon after inhaling should produce identical
subjective experiences with markedly less potential for respiratory injury.
A final approach to preventing harm to the lungs concerns smoking
potent marijuana. Cannabis with higher amounts of THC can provide
the same subjective experience with a reduced intake of smoke and ac-
companying deposits of tar. One study showed that 10 regular users
deposited less tar when smoking marijuana that was approximately 4%
THC than they did while smoking marijuana that was approximately 2%
THC. These results suggest that stronger cannabis may actually decrease
the risk of respiratory problems (Matthias et al., 1997). British police
have confiscated marijuana with THC concentrations around 20%
(House of Lords, 1998). Perhaps cannabis this strong could create sub-
jective effects with little exposure to damaging tars. The potential to
smoke less while maintaining the same subjective state will undoubtedly
help decrease lung and respiratory troubles.


Several interesting lines of research suggest that the cannabinoids play an

important role in the function of sex hormones and sperm. This work
has led to growing concerns about marijuana’s impact on fertility and
birth defects. Unfortunately, some enthusiastic efforts to prevent drug
use have overstated the data, implying that consumption can lead to
permanent infertility or drastic birth defects. (My junior high school
health teacher suggested that the children of marijuana smokers would
be born with one eye in the center of their foreheads.) Extremely large
doses of cannabis could, in theory, decrease fertility in humans. Never-
theless, research has yet to show a definitive decrease in reproductive
function in people who smoke marijuana. The drug also has not been
linked to human birth defects.
Studies of primates show that THC can alter sex hormones. Large
Marijuana’s Health Effects 159

doses of the drug can decrease hormones central to menstruation, in-

cluding follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, and proges-
terone. These effects require an injected dose of 2.5 mg of THC per
kilogram of body weight, a dose comparable to a 130-pound woman
smoking 7 joints per day. Monkeys who received this dose for 18 con-
secutive days did not ovulate. Nevertheless, with chronic administration
of the drug for up to a year, monkeys developed tolerance to this effect
and began ovulating again. Comparable results appear for rats and rab-
bits. Thus, large doses can disrupt female sex hormones, but functions
return to normal with time (Smith, Almirez, Scher, & Asch, 1984).
Research on marijuana’s impact on fertility in human women offers
mixed results. One study showed increased rates of marijuana use in
women who are infertile. In the infertile group, 61% of the women had
used marijuana. In the fertile group, only 53% had smoked cannabis.
Nevertheless, infertile women did not use marijuana more often or for a
longer period than those who were fertile. The use of cocaine had a much
larger impact on fertility. Once the investigators controlled for cocaine
consumption and other factors that contribute to infertility, the impact
of cannabis decreased (Mueller, Daling, Weiss, & Moore, 1990). In con-
trast, a later study found that women who used marijuana regularly con-
ceived more quickly than women who did not use the drug (Joesof, Beral,
Aral, Rolfs, & Cramer, 1993). Perhaps these data say more about mari-
juana’s alleged functioning as an aphrodisiac than anything about a direct
impact on fertility.
Animal and human research also reveals that THC may interfere with
the production of sperm. Extensive studies of sea urchin sperm reveal
that cannabinoids decrease their capacity to fertilize an egg (Schuel et
al., 1999). In addition, THC lowers the motility of bull sperm in a petri
dish (Shahar & Bino, 1974). THC treatments of 5 mg per kilogram of
body weight (18 joints per day for a 160-pound man) created twice as
many abnormal sperm as usual in mice (Zimmerman, Zimmerman, &
Raj, 1979). Anyone intending to breed mice, cows, or sea urchins should
keep them away from large doses of cannabinoids. In human research,
men who smoked an average of 8 joints per day for one month showed
significant drops in sperm count and motility (Hembree, Nahas, Zeiden-
berg, & Huang, 1979). Nevertheless, their sperm count and functions did
not fall to abnormal levels and returned to normal after the study ended.
Despite all this work, no studies show an actual decrease in fertility for
men who use cannabis.
160 Understanding Marijuana


The behavior of pregnant women has become a giant public health con-
cern that may mirror attitudes about sex and sexism (Stoltenberg, 1988).
Some states may prosecute pregnant women for child abuse if they test
positive for drugs. These statutes may lead pregnant women to avoid
prenatal health care, dramatically increasing the chances of problematic
deliveries. Laws like this assume that illicit drugs damage the fetus. Re-
search designed to assess the impact of marijuana on the fetus is often
compounded by polysubstance abuse. Investigators often must limit their
work to countries like Jamaica, where women who smoke cannabis are
not particularly likely to use other drugs. Alternatively, researchers can
estimate the effects of other drugs like alcohol and cocaine and then see
if marijuana use contributes to additional problems.
The limited available research suggests that marijuana may have little
effect on offspring when they are young. Problems related to prenatal
marijuana exposure may not appear until children reach the age of 4 or
older. These might include an increase in problems related to attention
and delinquency. Yet the women who choose to use cannabis during
pregnancy may have behavioral problems themselves, making it unclear
if their children develop troubles because of marijuana exposure, genet-
ics, or poor parenting. Animal studies can avoid this problem by admin-
istering the drug to a random sample while ensuring that another group
receives no drugs. These experiments show that extremely large doses of
THC can lower birth weights, as well as increase spontaneous abortions
and deformities, but generalizing these data to humans requires consid-
erable caution (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).
Research on extremely young children exposed to marijuana prena-
tally shows few effects. A study of more than 12,000 newborns found
no link between cannabis use and gestation, birth weight, or malforma-
tions (Linn et al., 1983). Other studies found statistically significant re-
sults in large samples, but these often have little practical meaning. For
example, research on 583 women showed shorter gestation periods for
those who smoked cannabis 6 times per week while pregnant. Yet their
babies were born an average of only 6 days early, once investigators con-
trolled for the effects of alcohol and nicotine. Other work has found no
link between marijuana use and the length of gestation (Witter & Niebyl,
Marijuana’s Health Effects 161

1990). Cannabis use had no impact on birth weight, either (Fried, Wat-
kinson, & Willan, 1984).
Other studies of very young children prenatally exposed to marijuana
also show few meaningful effects. At 3 days and at 1 month of age, the
offspring of mothers who smoked cannabis in Jamaica seemed no differ-
ent from those born of mothers who never touched the drug. In fact,
children of heavy users appeared less irritable, as well as more alert and
stable (Dreher, Nugent, & Hudgins, 1994). In addition, the cognitive
abilities of Jamaican children age 4 or 5 appeared unharmed by prenatal
marijuana exposure (Hayes, Lampart, Dreher, & Morgan, 1991). These
studies may provide some of the best information on the impact of mar-
ijuana exclusively because the use of other drugs is less common in Ja-
maica. Several North American studies also showed no effect of prenatal
marijuana use on a few different measures. For example, American chil-
dren exposed to marijuana prenatally showed no deficits on gross motor
skills at age 3 (Chandler, Richardson, Gallagher, & Day, 1996) and no
differences in total growth at age 6 (Day, Richardson, Geva, & Robles,
Although the studies above suggest little negative consequence for
smoking marijuana during pregnancy, research that follows the children
for a longer period reveals some potentially disturbing links to cognitive
abilities and behavior problems. For example, children exposed to mar-
ijuana prenatally showed problems with a sustained attention task when
they reached age 6 (Fried, Watkinson, & Gray, 1992). Another com-
mendable longitudinal study followed over 600 mothers through preg-
nancy until their children reached age 10 (Goldschmidt, Day, & Rich-
ardson, 2000). Prenatal exposure to marijuana predicted several
behavioral problems in this sample. Mothers who smoked cannabis while
pregnant reported that their children were more impulsive and hyper-
active and had more trouble paying attention. In addition, these chil-
dren’s teachers rated them as more delinquent. Mothers who did not
smoke cannabis during pregnancy had half the rate of delinquency in
their children as the mothers who smoked one joint per day. These ef-
fects remained even when the researchers statistically controlled for other
contributors to these problems, including the mother’s use of other
drugs, her depression, and her hostility.
These data suggest that prenatal exposure to cannabis can increase
troubles many years later. Nevertheless, the authors caution that they did
162 Understanding Marijuana

not take the mother’s own behavioral problems into account. Perhaps
inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, delinquent women are more likely to
use cannabis during pregnancy. These problems might also have a genetic
component. Thus, the children might have inherited these troubles from
their mothers regardless of marijuana exposure. Alternatively, mothers
with these qualities may serve as poor parents, leading their children to
develop problems.
In addition, the researchers performed dozens of analyses only to re-
veal a few significant effects. They did not correct their statistics for the
number of analyses conducted. Therefore, some of these findings may
have occurred simply by chance. As a result, a clear, confirmed link be-
tween prenatal exposure to cannabis and later problems remains elusive.
Nevertheless, pregnant women would probably do well to abstain from
all drugs, as their long-term impact on offspring is often negative or un-

Immune Function

The impact of smoked marijuana on immune function remains a contro-

versial topic, particularly given recent medicinal use of the drug. Many
people employ cannabis in the battle against AIDS-related wasting and
the anorexia associated with cancer chemotherapy. Physicians and pa-
tients show an understandable concern about any treatment that might
impair the ability to ward off illness. People with AIDS and cancer need
all their immune cells to function as well as possible. Research on THC
and immunity has focused on individual cells, live animals, and humans.
Generally, the impact of the drug is most dramatic on small cultures of
cells and has less effect on immunity in people.
The vast majority of research on marijuana and immunity focuses on
the white blood corpuscles (leukocytes or lymphocytes) known as T-cells.
The thymus gland helps these leukocytes develop, hence, the name “T”
cell. These lymphocytes can bind to cells that have been infected with a
virus. The T-cells then release molecules that will destroy the infected
cell. This process not only eliminates the site of the infection, but it also
prevents the spread of the virus. Thus, these T-cells play an important
role in immune function.
One initial study found that T-cells taken from chronic marijuana
smokers were less responsive to immune system stimulants than the
Marijuana’s Health Effects 163

T-cells taken from nonsmokers (Nahas, Suciv-Foca, Armand, & Morish-

ima, 1974). Yet this finding has not replicated in other work. Many stud-
ies have shown no immunity problems in cells taken from marijuana
smokers (IOM, 1999). Another research approach involves extracting
human cells from nonsmokers and exposing the cells to large amounts of
THC or cannabis smoke. This treatment decreases the cell’s responses to
chemicals that normally stimulate immune function. Yet heavy doses of
caffeine, aspirin, and alcohol show comparable effects. Thus, these data
do not justify alarm about marijuana’s potential impact on immunity.
Another intriguing line of research focuses on alveolar macrophages,
the immune cells that clear infectious organisms from the lungs. Re-
searchers used a saline wash of the lungs to remove some macrophages
from people who smoked marijuana regularly. Compared to the cells
from nonsmokers, the macrophages extracted from marijuana smokers
were less able to kill fungi, bacteria, or tumor cells. Although the behav-
ior of extracted cells may not generalize to the immune function of hu-
mans, these data support the idea that heavy marijuana smoking could
lead to pulmonary problems by inhibiting the immune cells of the lungs
(Tashkin, 1999). Nevertheless, this sort of treatment of isolated cells may
reveal little about the way that they might function inside a human.
Thus, the relevance of this work to real people catching colds, flu, or
other illness may be limited (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).
Research from living animals might prove more relevant than findings
from extracted cells. Studies of guinea pigs and mice reveal that THC
can reduce their ability to ward off viruses and bacteria. For example,
guinea pigs given THC and then exposed to the herpes virus showed
more symptoms than those guinea pigs who do not receive THC. Mice
treated with THC had less resistance to other viruses and bacterial in-
fections, too (Cabral, 1999). Yet some of these studies use enormous
doses of THC, as high as 200 mg per kilogram of body weight. An equal
amount, based on weight, for a 160-pound person, would require smok-
ing more than 700 joints. This dosage obviously surpasses the consump-
tion of even the most devoted cannabis users. Critics of this research
emphasize that these doses are unrealistic analogues of human consump-
Given the difficulties inherent in generalizing from animal research,
studies of humans may provide the most relevant evidence for THC’s
impact on immune function. An ideal scientific approach would ran-
domly assign people to smoke marijuana or a placebo for months and
164 Understanding Marijuana

months, and then measure which group gets sick more often. Obvious
ethical problems have prevented research of this type. Instead, studies
focus on the rates of illness in people who choose to use cannabis and in
those who do not. This type of work must control for differences be-
tween these groups in lifestyle habits and the use of other drugs. These
studies are rare. One shows a small increase in respiratory symptoms in
cannabis smokers (Polen, 1993). Comparable studies of HIV-positive
people found that smoking marijuana had no impact on their immune
function (Coates et al., 1990; Kaslow et al., 1989). Another study ac-
tually revealed that heterosexual men who used cannabis regularly were
less likely to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Holly, Lele, Bracci, &
McGrath, 1999). Dronabinol, the synthetic version of THC prescribed
for oral consumption, does not come with warnings about potential loss
of immune function. The Institute of Medicine has concluded that the
impact of marijuana smoke itself requires further research (IOM, 1999).
Given results like these, THC does not appear to impair immunity, and
limited ingestion of marijuana smoke may also have little effect.


A great deal of research addresses the role of cannabis on health. Mari-

juana does not appear to have a toxic dose. The drug can exacerbate
symptoms of some mental illnesses, particularly psychotic disorders like
schizophrenia. Yet it does not appear to cause these mental health prob-
lems. Cannabis’s impact on brain structure is minimal. Nevertheless, sen-
sitive measures of brain function reveal subtle changes associated with
years of regular use. Respiratory symptoms like bronchitis and wheezing
appear more often in chronic cannabis users; they also show changes in
bronchial cells comparable to those seen in early stages of lung cancer.
High doses of cannabinoids can alter sperm production and reproductive
hormones, but these effects are temporary. The impact of THC and can-
nabis smoke on immune function may require further investigation, but
data have yet to show that smoking marijuana increases the rates of in-
fectious disease.
These results confirm that marijuana is neither completely harmless
nor tragically toxic. Compared to other drugs that are currently legal, its
impact on health is minimal. People with psychotic disorders should
probably avoid cannabis. Chronic daily use obviously creates potential
Marijuana’s Health Effects 165

problems for the quick performance of complex tasks. Smoking every

day undoubtedly taxes the lungs. Men attempting to impregnate women
may have more luck if they abstain from cannabis. Pregnant women
should probably avoid all drugs. Nevertheless, occasional use by healthy
adults does not appear to create dramatic mental or physical illness. Can-
nabis seems to have fewer negative health effects than legal drugs, like
alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco, and kills far fewer people.
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Medical Marijuana

Proponents of legalizing cannabis for medicinal use suggest the drug

could help many who currently suffer from illness and disease. Oppo-
nents of the idea assert that the legal drugs currently available provide
appropriate relief from relevant symptoms. These different viewpoints
have inspired spirited debates. An unbiased assessment of the drug’s
costs and benefits requires extensive research. Investigations must re-
veal the drug’s ability to alleviate symptoms without creating unsatisfac-
tory side effects. This chapter outlines a brief history of marijuana’s
medical uses and discusses important considerations in evaluating rele-
vant research. An overview of marijuana’s applications follows, examin-
ing the available data on its utility as a treatment for many physical ail-
Smoked cannabis clearly helps some problems and may cost less than
other medications. Synthetic cannabinoids can also alleviate symptoms
of many disorders. Data suggest that cannabinoids can work well alone;
they might also function effectively as part of a combination of thera-
pies. For certain disorders, standard medications other than the canna-
binoids remain the treatment of choice. Yet given the vast individual
differences in reactions to medications, a few people may not improve
with standard treatments and may respond better to medical cannabis.
There is not enough research on most medical applications of cannabi-
noids to draw any firm conclusions about efficacy. Further work on mar-
ijuana’s medical utility appears warranted.

168 Understanding Marijuana

A Brief History

Medicinal uses for cannabis date back to 2737 B.C., when the Chinese
emperor and pharmacologist Shen Neng prescribed the drug for gout,
malaria, beriberi, rheumatism, and memory problems. News of the med-
ication spread throughout the world. The drug helped reduce symptoms
in India, Africa, Greece, and Rome. Many authors assert that medical
marijuana treatments would not have reached other countries unless they
had meaningful efficacy. Dr. William O’Shaughnessy introduced the
medication to Europe in the 1830s. By the early 1900s, some of the most
prominent drug companies in Europe and America marketed cannabis
extracts as cures for a variety of symptoms, including headache, nausea,
cramps, and muscle spasms. Tinctures of cannabis may have had prob-
lems because of inconsistent potency, but they were often as good or
better than other medications available for the same symptoms (Abel,
In the United States, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 discouraged med-
ical (and recreational) use by requiring an expensive tax stamp and ex-
tensive paperwork. By 1942, against the recommendation of the Amer-
ican Medical Association, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia removed marijuana
from its list of medications. This move eliminated research on the med-
ical efficacy of the drug in this era, but recreational use increased. Users
eventually noticed an impact on physical symptoms. Clinical lore about
these medicinal effects spread. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse
Prevention and Control Act separated substances based on perceptions
of their medical utility and liability for abuse. The act placed marijuana
in Schedule I with heroin, mescaline, and LSD, making it unavailable for
medical use. Despite this classification, the federal government allowed
a few patients to receive the drug as part of a compassionate use program.
Ideally, this program would have permitted data collection to help in-
vestigate therapeutic effects. New research on animals and humans even-
tually revealed medical potential for smoked marijuana, as well as indi-
vidual cannabinoids.
By the early 1990s, the number of applications to the compassionate
use program increased exponentially as people with AIDS sought relief
from nausea and loss of appetite. The Department of Health and Human
Services officially terminated the program in March 1992. Nevertheless,
by the fall of 1996, California and Arizona had passed legislation per-
Medical Marijuana 169

mitting medicinal use of the drug. At least half of the remaining states
have put forth comparable initiatives (Rosenthal & Kleber, 1999). These
laws, however, conflict with federal legislation. Thus, possession of can-
nabis, even for medical purposes, remains a federal offense. Despite the
risks, the rates of use for medical marijuana remain high. Research has
continued, but only in very special circumstances, often using animals
rather than human participants.

Research Considerations

Although research cannot resolve all the legal and ethical issues related
to medicinal use of marijuana, it can address the drug’s efficacy in treat-
ment. Ideally, data on the utility of cannabis may inform these ethical
and legal debates. Several key issues are important in evaluating research
on medical marijuana. These concern the advantages and disadvantages
of case studies and randomized clinical trials, as well as the relative costs
and benefits of alternative medications. Case studies and randomized
clinical trials each provide important information. Almost all medical
uses of marijuana started with successful treatments of individual cases.
One person found the drug helped alleviate a symptom and simply
spread the news. Physicians published some of these reports, which oc-
casionally inspired formal research projects. These case studies are superb
for generating ideas for further work. Nevertheless, opinions vary on
whether or not they provide enough information to encourage prescrib-
ing marijuana or cannabinoids. Fans of case studies emphasize that med-
ical problems have unique features. Essentially, every use of every ther-
apy is its own case study. Individual responses to drugs vary. As a result,
physicians alter dosages and treatments based on ideographic reactions.
Proponents of case studies also mention that many medications gained
widespread use based on only a few positive results, including aspirin,
insulin, and penicillin. They emphasize that large studies require consid-
erable time and expense, potentially preventing people from using a help-
ful drug. These arguments in support of case studies can be particularly
compelling when previous research has already established a medication’s
safety. For example, a few studies in the mid-1970s showed that a daily
aspirin might help prevent a second heart attack. Yet a large study of the
treatment did not appear until 1988. Without a large clinical trial, phy-
sicians did not recommend a daily aspirin to prevent a second heart at-
170 Understanding Marijuana

tack. This bias against smaller studies cost thousands of lives. Many peo-
ple died during the lag between the initial evidence and the completion
of a large clinical trial (Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997).
In contrast, single cases also have many drawbacks. People tend to
publish and remember the successful treatments but forget the failures.
Without a placebo control, we do not know if improvements arose sim-
ply from expectation. Many symptoms ebb and flow with time. Perhaps
some individual cases would have spontaneously recovered without any
treatment. To minimize these potential problems, researchers perform
randomized clinical trials. They randomly assign large samples of partic-
ipants to receive cannabinoids or a placebo. If the treatment group im-
proves more, the healing effects clearly do not stem from some natural
ebb and flow in the symptoms or from a patient’s expectations that the
drug will work. These studies are expensive and time consuming, but
they can provide the best data possible. Clinical trials of many drugs
receive funding from drug companies. Yet given the limited potential for
smoked marijuana to generate a profit for these companies, funding ran-
domized control trials to establish its medical efficacy remains difficult.
Another issue important to the evaluation of medical marijuana con-
cerns relative costs and benefits. Many evaluators suggest that cannabis
must outperform all other available drugs in order to receive approval
for treatment (IOM, 1999). Most supporters of this idea prefer estab-
lished drugs based on the belief that they have lower potential for abuse.
Physicians and patients must consider this cost relative to the drug’s ad-
vantages. Critics of this idea accuse drug companies of interfering with
marijuana research because of its low potential for increasing their profits
(Herer, 1999). These critics highlight that the approval of other medi-
cations usually requires simple evidence of safety and efficacy, not su-
periority to other drugs. For example, the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) approved fluoxetine (Prozac) based on its ability to relieve de-
pression better than a placebo. The FDA did not require data comparing
it to other standard antidepressants. Thus, marijuana should only need
evidence of efficacy and safety to receive approval for medical use.
In addition to established efficacy, the price of the drug and its side
effects also contribute to its costs and benefits. Price and side effects play
an important role in comparisons between oral THC, smoked marijuana,
and other medications. Dronabinol (Marinol), the synthetic version of
THC, costs as much as $13 for a 10 mg pill (Rosenthal & Kleber, 1999).
(Typical treatments can require two of these pills per day.) The price of
Medical Marijuana 171

dronabinol can drop to approximately $8 for pills purchased in bulk. (A

special program provides the drug to low-income patients at a reduced
rate.) The same 10 mg of THC appears in half of a typical marijuana
cigarette. This amount of cannabis costs less than $5 if purchased in bulk
on the underground market. The price could fall markedly if the National
Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) provided the marijuana or if the gov-
ernment lifted legal sanctions. Thus, smoked marijuana is cheaper, pro-
viding a clear advantage over oral THC and many other drugs.
Smoked marijuana also may have fewer side effects than oral THC
and many other drugs. Patients can smoke a small amount, notice effects
in a few minutes, and alter their dosages to keep adverse reactions to a
minimum. Long-term health effects appear in chapter 7, but smoked
marijuana for brief interventions or as a treatment for the terminally ill
has no more negative side effects than many other popular drugs.
Controlled studies reveal that cannabinoids can decrease pressure in-
side the eye for glaucoma patients, alleviate pain, reduce vomiting, en-
hance appetite, promote weight gain, and minimize spasticity and invol-
untary movement. Other work suggests additional therapeutic effects for
asthma, insomnia, and anxiety. Yet only a few studies have compared
cannabinoids to established treatments for these problems. Case studies
and animal research suggest that the drug may also help a host of other
medical and psychological conditions. These include seizures, tumors,
insomnia, menstrual cramps, premenstrual syndrome, Crohn’s disease,
tinnitus, schizophrenia, adult attention deficit disorder, uncontrollable
violent episodes, post-traumatic stress disorder, and, surprisingly, drug
addiction. The cases may provide enough evidence to stimulate research-
ers to conduct randomized clinical trials examining the impact of can-
nabinoids on these problems. The evidence of marijuana’s effectiveness
for treating each of these medical conditions appears below.

Elevated Intraocular Pressure

Glaucoma, the name depicting a group of problems characterized by

raised pressure within the eye, affects over 67 million people worldwide.
Approximately 300 people out of every 100,000 suffer from the disorder.
More than 2 million Americans have glaucoma, 80,000 of whom cannot
see. The heightened pressure within the eye eventually damages the optic
disk, hindering vision dramatically. It is the leading preventable cause of
172 Understanding Marijuana

visual impairments. Only cataracts, a currently unpreventable condition,

cause blindness in more people. The prevalence of glaucoma increases
with age and varies with ethnicity. The most common form of the dis-
order appears in 1% of people over age 60 and 9% of people over age
80. Individuals of African or Caribbean descent have higher rates. For
example, over 3% of Jamaicans develop the disease. Eliminating this dis-
order could clearly minimize extensive financial costs and personal an-
guish (IOM, 1999; Quigley, 1996; West, 1997).
Treatments for glaucoma have focused on techniques for decreasing
intraocular pressure to minimize damage to the optic nerve. Smoked
marijuana undoubtedly lowers the pressure within the eye, as established
over 30 years ago (Hepler & Petrus, 1971). At that time, the only drugs
available for lowering intraocular pressure caused aversive side effects.
Many patients on these medications reported blurred vision, headache,
frequent urination, and racing heart. Moreover, the drugs were ineffec-
tive at lowering intraocular pressure for some people. Multiple surgical
techniques developed as interventions, but not without associated risks.
Synthetic THC in pill form also lowers intraocular pressure but suffers
the usual drawbacks associated with oral administration. (The pills do
not act as quickly as smoked marijuana. Patients report that monitoring
their dosage is easier with smoked cannabis, too.) Researchers developed
an eye drop containing THC, but it failed to decrease intraocular pres-
A few glaucoma patients braved extensive bureaucratic burden to get
legal medical cannabis. They turned to the government’s compassionate
use program before it closed in 1992. Three glaucoma patients currently
receive cannabis cigarettes from the NIDA. Case studies document that
marijuana has kept their intraocular pressures down and preserved their
vision for many years (Randall & O’Leary, 1998).
Although smoked cannabis lowers pressure in the eye, it is not the
perfect treatment for glaucoma. One potential drawback of marijuana
concerns its short duration of action. Intraocular pressure creeps upward
within 3 or 4 hours of smoking cannabis. This predicament forces users
to smoke many times per day in order to avoid damage to the optic nerve.
Some patients may not adhere to a strict regimen like this one, particu-
larly over years and years of treatment. An alternative treatment that
would only require a single dosage per day would have a meaningful
advantage. This issue has become particularly important given recent
crackdowns against smoking in public. Anti-smoking laws might force
Medical Marijuana 173

medical users to delay their dosages while working or traveling. The cog-
nitive and subjective changes associated with marijuana intoxication also
seem like an aversive side effect, but most patients develop tolerance to
these reactions at the dosages needed to lower intraocular pressure.
After a decade of basic research, investigators in the West Indies de-
veloped Canasol, a cannabis derivative administered as eye drops that can
lower intraocular pressure. Unlike the first THC eye drops, Canasol can
decrease intraocular pressures up to 50% within 15 minutes. The drops
are inexpensive, have no psychoactive impact, and appear to cause few
side effects. They may work better when combined with other topical
agents that reduce pressures (West, 1997). Despite the potential benefits
of this relatively new treatment, people with years of experience using
marijuana to control intraocular pressure remain reluctant to risk their
sight by switching to a different medication. They report that changing
drugs after years of positive experience seems unnecessary (Randall &
O’Leary, 1998). New research on glaucoma treatment focuses on pre-
serving the optic nerve and retina rather than lowering the pressures.
Given the advent of Canasol and this new direction for research, the
Institute of Medicine has suggested that studies of smoked marijuana will
not be a priority for glaucoma research (IOM, 1999). Some patients may
choose the drug if all alternatives fail, but current medications seem ap-


Patients seek medical assistance for pain more often than any other symp-
tom (Andreoli, Carpenter, Bennet, & Plum, 1997). People experience a
variety of pains that include diffuse, throbbing pressures or sharp, specific
aches. Entire journals devote volumes to research on pain treatment.
Some therapies are quite simple and cause few side effects. For example,
a mere placebo can minimize pain in 16% of surgery patients (McQuay,
Carroll, & Moore, 1995). Relatively simple behavioral interventions also
decrease pain. Symptoms often vary with tension and mood. Thus, re-
laxation, stress reduction, and biofeedback can help significantly (Morley,
1997). Alternative treatments, like acupuncture, alleviate symptoms in
some studies but not others, perhaps depending on the intensity and
location of the pain (Kleinhenz et al., 1999; Van Tulder, Cherkin, Ber-
man, Lao, & Koes, 1999).
174 Understanding Marijuana

Despite the success of other treatments, pharmacological interventions

remain extremely popular remedies for pain. The simplest include aspi-
rin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and other over-the-
counter analgesics. Americans consume over 10,000 tons of these drugs
a year. They are relatively cheap, have few side effects at appropriate
dosages, and work well for mild pain. Nevertheless, they all can be toxic.
An aspirin overdose can damage stomach lining, liver, and kidneys. A
dozen acetaminophen tablets can kill a child.
Other pain killers that help severe symptoms include opiates like mor-
phine and codeine. These work quite well even for extreme distress,
inducing analgesia and an indifference to pain. People take them to re-
cover from acute stressors like surgery. Chronic pain patients may have
pumps installed in their spinal cords to release these drugs continuously.
The primary drawbacks of the opiates concern their potential lethality
and high liability for abuse and dependence. Opiate overdoses can be
fatal. People develop tolerance quickly and often increase their doses
with continued use. Withdrawal from these drugs includes extremely
aversive flu-like symptoms and spastic muscle twitches (Maisto et al.,
1995). Thus, alternative pain medications with fewer problems could
prove extremely helpful.
An ideal analgesic would have little potential for abuse but still pro-
vide inexpensive, rapid, complete relief without side effects. No single
drug has all of these qualities for treating the many types of pain. Thus,
investigators have developed a multitude of analgesics. Cannabis may
make a promising addition to this list. Physicians have used marijuana to
alleviate pain since the beginning of the first century, when Pliny the
Elder, the Roman naturalist, recommended it. The Asian surgeon Hua
T’o used cannabis combined with alcohol as an anesthetic by 200 A.D.
(Abel, 1980). In modern times, clinical lore and case studies support
cannabis-induced analgesia. A case study reveals that oral THC can re-
duce phantom limb pain—the odd, aversive sensations that seem to come
from amputated body parts. Another case shows that smoked marijuana
can alleviate the pain of arthritis. A third suggests a tincture of cannabis
can relieve tooth and gum distress (Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997). This
evidence generates intriguing hypotheses but cannot prove that effects
stem from expectancy rather than genuine pharmacology. Given the dra-
matic impact of placebos on pain, examinations of expectancy remain
extremely important. Different types of research have addressed the an-
algesic powers of smoked marijuana or the cannabinoids. In addition to
Medical Marijuana 175

these case studies, formal projects with larger samples also focus on this
issue. These projects include tests of marijuana’s painkilling effects on
laboratory-induced discomfort, as well as pain from surgery, headache,
and chronic illnesses like cancer.

Laboratory Stressors

Some studies examine the reactions of volunteers to aversive stimuli.

Participants ingest THC and then receive electric shocks or place their
fingers under hot lights or into freezing water. Initial research was not
encouraging. In the 1970s, this work offered little support for cannabis
as an analgesic. One study found THC actually increased sensitivity to
pain. Smoked marijuana yielding approximately 12 mg of THC made
people less tolerant to electric shocks (Hill, Schwin, Goodwin, & Powell,
1974). A 25 mg dose of oral THC failed to increase the threshold of
pain from cold water (Karniol, ShiraKawa, Takahashi, Knobel, & Musty,
1975). The only supportive study at the time revealed that intravenous
THC significantly increased the level of shock or pressure that partici-
pants first indicated as painful. Yet this last study found that the drug
had no impact on the maximum amount of pain that participants could
tolerate (Raft, Gregg, Ghia, & Harris, 1977).
One criticism of these laboratory studies concerns the reliability of
their measures of pain. A person’s threshold for pain produced by electric
current is not particularly stable from one day to the next. The poor
repeatability of this measure inspired the development of a new, more
reliable test of pain threshold. The new test focuses on people’s reactions
to heat. Each participant places a finger in a specified position near a hot
light bulb and withdraws it when the heat starts to hurt. A photocell
detects the exact amount of time people leave their fingers near the bulb.
Reactions to this test of pain tolerance vary less than reactions to shock
or cold water. In short, this heat test is more reliable than the measures
used before.
Participants show marijuana-induced analgesia on this heat test. In one
study, they took up to 18 puffs of marijuana (3.5% THC) or placebo.
The marijuana allowed them to leave their fingers beneath the lamp
longer before experiencing pain. Generally, the more puffs of marijuana
that the participants took, the longer they could hold their fingers under
the light. These data support marijuana’s analgesic effects, using a more
reliable pain measure. Notably, this study also used stronger marijuana
176 Understanding Marijuana

than the previous one that found no analgesia (Hill et al., 1974). This
experiment suggests marijuana may reduce pain to laboratory stimuli.
Nevertheless, the results may not generalize to situations more relevant
to medical use. Thus, other work has focused on pain from surgery or
illness, which may have many more practical applications.

Surgical Pain

A more practical approach to the study of marijuana’s analgesic effects

involves using the drug after surgery. Studies of THC-induced analgesia
after surgery report either mixed or positive results. In one study, men
who needed four molars pulled had them removed in four separate ses-
sions under four different conditions (Raft et al., 1977). They received
placebo, diazepam (an anti-anxiety medication), and two different doses
of THC prior to tooth extraction. Results were mixed. This study is often
cited as evidence that THC produced no analgesia (IOM, 1999). In fact,
3 participants rated the low dose as good or excellent and preferred it to
the placebo; 6 others preferred placebo to THC. The high dose of THC
was the least desirable of all the treatments. The results suggest that
marijuana may relieve pain for a subset of individuals but not others and
then only at an optimal dose. A study of pain from trauma or surgery
revealed that levonantradol, a synthetic version of THC, reduced pain
more than a placebo (Jain, Ryan, McMahon, & Smith, 1981). This evi-
dence suggests that cannabinoids may show some promise in the treat-
ment of acute pain, but tells little about the potential for handling more
chronic conditions.


One recurring painful condition that may benefit from cannabis treat-
ment is headache. Migraine, a form of headache that often includes se-
vere throbbing accompanied by disturbed vision, chills, sweating, nausea,
and vomiting, can be extremely debilitating. Bright lights, loud sounds,
or pungent odors can initiate the pain. Symptoms often begin with visual
disturbances like seeing flashes or auras. Then sufferers feel extreme ten-
sion and fatigue (Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997; Russo, 1998). Eventually,
a pulsing begins, sometimes on only one side of the head, where blood
vessels outside the cranium dilate. These expanded arteries activate nerve
fibers in the scalp, causing absolute agony. In the United States, roughly
Medical Marijuana 177

23 million people suffer from these headaches. One-fourth of these in-

dividuals have at least four migraine attacks a month. Most of these peo-
ple have their first severe headache before they turn 20. Productivity lost
to migraine may cost up to $17.2 billion per year.
Treatments for this form of headache remain imperfect. Biofeedback,
which trains people to use relaxation and imagery to change blood flow,
has proven particularly helpful. With as little as eight sessions of proper
therapy, people can learn to shrink the arteries or decrease the blood
flow at the site of the pain, bringing meaningful relief to a headache
(Elmore & Tursky, 1981). Several medications help alleviate symptoms
for some sufferers, but fail to help 30% of people. These drugs also pro-
duce aversive side effects in up to 66% of patients. The disadvantages of
these medications led some migraine sufferers to try marijuana. Physi-
cians have prescribed cannabis for headache since as early as 1874. Ad-
vocates of the treatment protested when it was removed from the U.S.
Pharmacopoeia in 1942 (Russo, 1998). Marijuana may have an advantage
over other painkillers, such as the opiates, because cannabis not only
combats headache pain, but it also inhibits the nausea and vomiting as-
sociated with migraine.
Investigators have not conducted clinical trials to support marijuana’s
efficacy as a headache treatment, but case reports abound. Users claim
that smoking cannabis at the first sign of symptoms can combat the entire
episode (Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997; Rosenthal et al., 1997). Investiga-
tions on animals suggests that a specific brain region involved in migraine,
the periaqueductal gray, contains many cannabinoid receptors. This basic
research, coupled with the case reports, led the Institute of Medicine to
suggest that further work on cannabinoids and migraine is warranted
(IOM, 1999). Ideal studies could compare cannabis products to estab-
lished medications to help verify the utility of the drug. If cannabinoids
prove equally effective with fewer side effects and lower costs, they
might make a superb addition to the available treatments for migraines.
Combinations of cannabinoids and other medications might also prove
particularly useful.

Cancer Pain

Even the most severe headaches are not as consistent as the chronic pain
that accompanies many illnesses, particularly cancer. Current estimates
suggest that 30% of Americans will get cancer and two-thirds of those
178 Understanding Marijuana

will die from it. Cancer pain can stem from nerve injury, inflammation,
or the many invasive procedures that accompany treatment. Opiates like
morphine often offer little relief for these pains. They are also nauseating
and notorious for their potential for tolerance, dependence, and abuse.
Clinical lore from the 1970s suggested that marijuana might ameliorate
some of the agony associated with this disease.
At least three subsequent studies of cancer pain provide some of the
most encouraging evidence for the analgesic effects of cannabinoids. In
one investigation, 10 cancer patients who had reported continuous pain
received different amounts of THC on different days. Each person took
a placebo on one day and 5, 10, 15, or 20 mg of THC on other days.
Despite the small sample, which decreased the power to detect effects,
the highest two doses of THC produced statistically significant decreases
in pain. In addition, the lower doses showed a trend toward analgesia
that would have been statistically significant with 4 more participants.
These results proved encouraging, but the authors emphasize that sub-
jective side effects appeared frequently. At the highest dose, a majority
of the patients experienced dizziness, mental clouding, or drowsiness. In
addition, half also reported feeling euphoric (Noyes, Brunk, Baram, &
Canter, 1975). Patients may prefer these side effects to the pain of can-
cer. The relative costs and benefits of oral THC may have to be assessed
on a case-by-case basis.
This first study inspired a second one with a larger sample that com-
pared THC to codeine. Thirty-four cancer patients with chronic pain
each took placebo, a low dose of codeine (60 mg), a high dose of codeine
(120 mg), a low dose of THC (10 mg), and a high dose of THC (20 mg)
on different days. The high doses of both drugs created statistically sig-
nificant relief. Their analgesic effects did not differ from each other. The
low doses failed to produce statistically significant analgesia. (Ten more
participants would have brought the pain relief scores to statistical sig-
nificance.) These results support the idea that THC’s impact on pain
compares favorably to another accepted analgesic. Yet the negative side
effects were more dramatic with THC than codeine. Five patients re-
ported aversive reactions, including anxiety, depression, and loss of con-
trol. Four others experienced obvious euphoria (Noyes, Brunk, Avery, &
Canter, 1975).
A third report inspired by these two studies and animal research com-
pared cancer patient’s reactions to codeine, secobarbital (a tranquilizer),
and a modified form of the THC molecule. This modified molecule con-
Medical Marijuana 179

tains nitrogen in a benzopyran derivative and has been dubbed “NIB.”

NIB produced significantly more analgesia than placebo or the tranquil-
izer. This result supports the analgesic properties of drugs related to
THC. Many people think that cannabinoid drugs relieve pain by increas-
ing relaxation or sedation. Yet because NIB worked better than secobar-
bital (the tranquilizer), it would seem that cannabinoids must have an-
algesic effects that do not depend solely on relaxation. The analgesic
effects of NIB were comparable to codeine’s. The authors of this study
reported that NIB has not appeared in common medical practice because
of significant side effects like anxiety and dizziness. Yet, in this sample,
these effects were actually minimal (Staquet, Gantt, & Machlin, 1978).
These three studies generally support the utility of the cannabinoids
as analgesics for chronic pain. Studies of smoked marijuana might also
support painkilling effects for chronic conditions. Recent theories suggest
that the cannabinoids might combine well with opiates to create maximal
pain relief with minimal negative consequences (Fuentes et al., 1999).
Research on these combination therapies could reveal an important role
for cannabinoids in the treatment of pain.
Despite this supportive evidence, physicians remain concerned about
cannabinoid treatments because of their side effects. A meaningful num-
ber of pain patients apparently found these cannabinoids aversive. Note,
however, that these studies all used orally administered derivatives. Oral
absorption of cannabinoids is notoriously slow and erratic. Controlling
the dosage of these medications remains very difficult. In contrast, med-
ical users of marijuana report improved control of dosage with smoked
cannabis. Individuals can take a few inhalations of the drug, wait a few
minutes, and decide if they require more or not. The quicker absorption
allows for easier assessment of relief. This arrangement reportedly allows
the consumption of an appropriate amount of marijuana to alleviate pain
without creating depersonalization, anxiety, or other adverse side effects
(Grinspoon, 1971; Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997).

Nausea and Vomiting

Many medical conditions and treatments leave people feeling queasy and
sick. Most research on marijuana and vomiting focuses on cancer. Che-
motherapy remains one of the most important developments in cancer
treatment. Potent, toxic chemicals attack malignant cells, eliminating
180 Understanding Marijuana

some tumors and stopping the growth of many. Unfortunately, healthy

tissue suffers as well. Oncologists must determine dosages carefully to
minimize damage to the kidneys, heart, and other organs. These drugs
produce extreme nausea and vomiting that can last for days. Although
many chemotherapy patients rate the loss of their hair as their primary
concern, nausea often appears as the most severe side effect of therapy.
After repeated treatments, patients sometimes develop conditioned re-
actions, making them feel ill before chemotherapy even begins. They may
grow nauseated at the sight of their physician’s office or the sound of the
music played in the waiting room. These side effects cause some people
to miss treatments frequently or discontinue them entirely, minimizing
their chances of success. Patients who vomit frequently also have trouble
getting appropriate nutrition. Thus, the development of antiemetic pro-
cedures can have a dramatic impact on cancer survival rates (Grinspoon
& Bakalar, 1997).
Behavioral interventions, including distraction and relaxation, help re-
duce nausea in chemotherapy patients (Burish & Tope, 1992). Never-
theless, most antiemetic treatments are pharmacological. Physicians knew
of cannabis’s ability to combat nausea and minimize vomiting at least by
the 1840s, when O’Shaughnessy published the research he had con-
ducted in India. Ancient cultures likely knew of these antiemetic effects
long before (Abel, 1980). As early as the 1970s, clinical lore suggested
that marijuana might help chemotherapy patients. Persuasive and emo-
tional case studies documented the efficacy of smoked marijuana, includ-
ing one from renowned Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould (Grin-
spoon & Bakalar, 1997).
An initial experiment appeared in the prestigious New England Journal
of Medicine in 1975. Twenty cancer patients who had found standard
antiemetics ineffective received THC or placebo beginning two hours
before chemotherapy. The patients’ reports suggested that THC caused
significant relief, and side effects were relatively mild (Sallan, Zinberg, &
Frei, 1975). Subsequent studies consistently confirmed THC’s antiemetic
effects (IOM, 1999). Smoked marijuana and the synthetic cannabinoids
nabilone and levonantradol also decreased nausea and vomiting for che-
motherapy patients (Steele, Gralla, & Braun, 1980; Tyson et al., 1985;
Viniciguerra, Moore, & Brennan, 1988). Delta-8-THC, which may create
less intoxication than delta-9-THC, prevented vomiting during chemo-
therapy for children with a minimum of side effects (Abrahamov, Abra-
hamov, & Mechoulam, 1995).
Medical Marijuana 181

Despite all this support for THC’s efficacy, the drug did not gain
widespread popularity because of legal issues and improved alternative
treatments. Synthetic THC’s long status as a Schedule II drug created
extra paperwork for physicians, which may have limited its use in che-
motherapy. More important, subsequent research revealed superior re-
sults with other treatments. Although THC outperformed one popular
antiemetic (prochlorperazine), another drug (haloperidol) equaled THC
and produced fewer side effects. A different drug (metoclopamide) has
outperformed all three of these (Gralla et al., 1984). Some newer antie-
metics show even more promise than metoclopamide, too. Given the
strong evidence in support of these medications, most physicians would
probably not prescribe dronabinol unless other drugs proved ineffective.
No one has performed clinical trials comparing these drugs to smoked
marijuana. Smoked cannabis may permit easier absorption and also might
cost less. This research may prove extremely helpful.
Although research on smoked cannabis’s efficacy as an antiemetic has
not yet been completed, it has the potential to be the most cost effective
option. The prices of medical treatments are extremely important, par-
ticularly in the era of managed care. Some antiemetics for chemotherapy
are $400 per treatment (Kattlove, 1995), but others cost as little as $35
(IOM, 1999). The amount of dronabinol (THC) typically used as an
antiemetic for chemotherapy costs $50 to $100 per treatment, depending
on the amount purchased at one time. Four to six marijuana cigarettes
from the NIDA would provide as much THC as the typical dosage used
in this research. This amount of cannabis would cost as little as $20 in
the underground market and much less if the government lifted legal
sanctions. Patients report that smoking allows them to use smaller doses
because rapid absorption can help them monitor the drug’s impact
quickly. These smoked, smaller doses translate to lower costs and fewer
side effects. Opponents of medical marijuana argue that smoking in-
creases risks for lung and throat problems, but these concerns are minimal
for acute use during chemotherapy. No one has developed lung cancer
from smoking marijuana for a few months.
Besides expenses, other issues support continued research on mari-
juana and cannabinoids as antiemetics. Individual responses to almost all
medications vary widely. A subset of cancer patients may not react well
to standard nausea drugs. These people might find cannabinoids or mar-
ijuana particularly helpful as an alternative. In addition, patients develop
tolerance to antiemetics. Switching from one drug to another may help
182 Understanding Marijuana

minimize this tolerance. Cannabinoids appear to suppress vomiting via

cannabinoid receptors, whereas other drugs work in different neurotrans-
mitter systems. Thus, occasionally using cannabinoids instead of other
medications may limit tolerance to the standard antiemetics.
Because they work in a different way, cannabinoids might also make
a nice adjunct when used in combination with other drugs. Smaller doses
of multiple antiemetics may control vomiting with a minimum of side
effects. Researchers have not yet conducted studies of these combination
therapies, but they may prove promising (IOM, 1999). Given the dra-
matic differences in responses to drugs, as well as the potential for effec-
tive combinations of cannabinoids and other medications, treatment for
chemotherapy-induced nausea requires extensive tailoring to each indi-
vidual case. Further research definitely appears warranted.

Diminished Appetite and Weight Loss

In an era where some of the most famous icons of popular culture look
emaciated, loss of appetite and body mass may not seem like important
medical problems. Yet decreased hunger, a symptom of many illnesses
and a side effect of many treatments, can lead to an inappropriate loss
of weight, lowering survival rates for those with serious diseases. This
loss of appetite, or anorexia, differs markedly from the psychological dis-
order anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa typically includes a distorted
sense of obesity, dissatisfaction with the size of one’s body, and flagrant
refusal to maintain a healthy weight. Although the term means “nervous
appetite loss,” the expression is a misnomer. People with anorexia nerv-
osa still feel hunger, but they ignore it in an effort to maintain drastically
low body weights (APA, 1994).
In contrast to anorexia nervosa, people who experience the symptom
of anorexia show a genuine absence of appetite and a loss of interest in
food. Both anorexia nervosa and anorexia can lead to malnutrition, de-
creased lean body mass, and significant health problems, but their treat-
ments are markedly different. Cannabinoids offer little help to sufferers
of anorexia nervosa, who simply grow conflicted and depressed as the
drug enhances their desire for foods they consider forbidden. Neverthe-
less, marijuana and THC can combat anorexia (the symptom) success-
fully (Gross et al., 1983; IOM, 1999).
Anorexia typically appears in people with cancer and AIDS. From 50
Medical Marijuana 183

to 80% of cancer patients show the dramatic loss of lean body tissue
known as cachexia or wasting. This symptom appears most often in the
late stages of pancreatic, lung, and prostate cancer. Cancerous cells as
well as the body’s immune response to them can increase anorexia and
cachexia (Bruera & Higginson, 1996). In addition, the treatments for
cancer and the depression that often accompanies the disease can also
decrease appetite and weight.
AIDS wasting, an involuntary loss of more than 10% of body weight
coupled with diarrhea or fever, decreases survival rates dramatically. This
wasting weakens immune function, increasing the chances of opportun-
istic infection. AIDS patients are more likely to die if their weight falls
5% below ideal. Nearly every patient whose body mass drops below two-
thirds of ideal weight dies within a year. Many aspects of HIV infection
contribute to weight loss. Anorexia from the disease contributes to wast-
ing. Many AIDS medications also decrease appetite, leading to further
weight loss. The impaired immune system allows microorganisms in the
intestine to interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Mouth and throat
ulcerations also make eating difficult (IOM, 1999; Kotler, Tierney, Wang,
& Pierson, 1989). Treatments for anorexia and cachexia remain imper-
fect, since most focus on increasing hunger in an attempt to build body
People knew that cannabis enhanced appetite as early as 300 A.D.
(Mattes, Engelman, Shaw, & ElSohly, 1994). Drug lore and self-report
questionnaires confirmed “the munchies,” an improved enjoyment of
food associated with marijuana intoxication (Tart, 1971). Experimental
evidence established that this increased desire for food did not arise from
a placebo effect. A 13-day study of 6 healthy men living in a residential
laboratory revealed that they consumed an extra 1,000 calories after
smoking marijuana—40% more than after smoking placebo (Foltin et al.,
1988). These results support the pharmacological explanation for can-
nabis’s increase in appetite. Animal research has confirmed that the can-
nabinoid receptor CB1 plays a key role in eating. Rats injected with an
endogenous cannabinoid (anandamide) ate twice as much as rats given
saline. Nevertheless, anandamide did not increase eating when research-
ers blocked the CB1 receptor (Williams & Kirkham, 1999). Thus, can-
nabinoid receptors clearly play an important role in the desire for food.
Appetite increase, like every physical and psychological reaction to
marijuana, shows a great deal of variation. Cannabis’s stimulation of the
desire for food can depend on interactions among dosage, the mode of
184 Understanding Marijuana

administration, and the length of exposure. First, the dose must be ap-
propriate. Too little of the drug will not increase appetite. Too much
will actually inhibit eating. The method for administering the drug also
alters its impact. Smoking may have an advantage over alternative tech-
niques. A single dose of smoked cannabis appears to increase appetite
more than a single dose of dronabinol or one marijuana suppository. Gen-
erally, smoking and suppositories have advantages over dronabinol be-
cause they can bypass the liver in the metabolism of THC. In addition,
many anecdotal reports suggest that users prefer smoking. Smokers can
feel the impact of the drug quickly and moderate their dose to minimize
undesirable reactions. In addition to variation from dosage and mode of
administration, the number of doses contributes to appetite. Multiple
administrations increase appetite more in the long run than single ad-
ministrations do (Mattes, Engelman et al., 1994).
Because the studies described above focused on enhancing appetites
in healthy individuals, they may tell little about the impact of cannabi-
noids on ill people. Despite potential advantages of smoked marijuana
and suppositories, the vast majority of research on medical populations
involves oral, synthetic THC. Synthetic THC has helped people with
Alzheimer’s, cancer, and AIDS. Alzheimer’s patients often refuse food.
A six-week program of oral THC helped increase their weight and min-
imize disturbed behavior (Volicer, Stelly, Morris, McLaughlin, & Volicer,
1997). Dronabinol has improved appetite and increased weight in one
study of cancer patients, too (Gorter, 1991). Most studies of chemo-
therapy and nausea reveal that THC can enhance appetites in cancer
patients. People with HIV and AIDS have also benefited from oral can-
nabinoids, showing weight gain (or at least slowed weight loss), as well
as improved appetite and mood.
Seventy-two AIDS patients who took 2.5 mg dronabinol twice a day
showed significantly greater appetite increases than 67 others who re-
ceived placebo. The difference between the groups reached significance
in only 4 weeks and continued for the full 6 weeks of the study. Despite
the differences in appetite, people who received THC did not gain sig-
nificantly more weight after 6 weeks (Beal et al., 1995). Nevertheless, a
follow-up of 94 of these patients who subsequently all received drona-
binol showed that they maintained their weights for 7 months (Beal et
al., 1997). Usually, late-stage AIDS patients lose weight over this much
time. Other research also supports increased appetite and weight after
dronabinol treatment (IOM, 1999).
Medical Marijuana 185

These studies of oral cannabinoids suggest that they may help increase
weight, yet many patients continue to use illicit marijuana instead. This
practice may have risks that oral cannabinoids do not. The hazards of
smoked marijuana may increase in chronically ill people. Physicians and
patients have been particularly concerned about cannabis decreasing im-
mune function, as discussed in chapter 7. Few studies have systematically
examined the drug’s impact on resistance to viruses, bacteria, or tumors.
The impact on T and B lymphocytes, important components of the im-
mune system, is generally small. Unfortunately, cannabis smoke does im-
pair macrophages, the primary immune cells of the lungs. Another worry
about smoked marijuana involves contamination from bacteria or fungus
spores. The aspergillus fungus can grow on cannabis and cause life-
threatening lung disease in anyone with impaired immune function
(IOM, 1999). Yet a few minutes in a 160-degree oven or microwave may
kill pathogens, perhaps minimizing this potential problem (Rosenthal et
al., 1997).
Despite these concerns, anecdotal evidence for smoked cannabis re-
mains positive. Patients claim the usual advantages of smoked marijuana,
including easy absorption, minimal side effects, and lower costs. They
also emphasize that their appetites increase after a single dose of smoked
marijuana, whereas dronabinol may require weeks of administration be-
fore enhancing hunger. Yet no controlled studies of smoked cannabis and
weight gain appear in the literature. Reports of smoked marijuana de-
creasing chemotherapy-induced vomiting often suggest that appetite and
weight improve for cancer patients (Dansak, 1997). After many bureau-
cratic difficulties, Dr. Donald Abrams of the University of California in
San Francisco received approval to test smoked marijuana for people with
AIDS. The results of this study will help establish if inhaled cannabis
smoke can increase weight without causing harm. Only large clinical trials
may reveal if smoked marijuana has meaningful advantages over drona-
binol and suppositories for enhancing appetite and increasing weight.
Physicians use many treatments for these symptoms besides cannabi-
noids. Other medications designed to combat cachexia include a variety
of hormones and drugs. Megestrol acetate (Megace), a synthetic version
of the hormone progesterone, has helped cancer patients and AIDS pa-
tients put on pounds. The treatment costs approximately $10 per day.
It is superior to dronabinol in helping AIDS patients gain weight, and
dronabinol does not enhance its effects. Thus, megestrol and dronabinol
combined do not increase weight more than megestrol alone. Neverthe-
186 Understanding Marijuana

less, this treatment has its own drawbacks. Side effects can include dif-
ficulty breathing, impotence, changes in liver enzymes, and blood sugar
problems. In addition, people may develop tolerance to its appetite-
enhancing effects (Krampf, 1997; Timpone et al., 1997). Another limi-
tation of both megestrol and THC concerns the type of weight gain they
produce. These drugs increase fat more than lean body tissue. Many users
of smoked cannabis report it increases their desire for sweets rather than
protein-rich foods that would contribute more to their health (Tart,
1971). Thus, patients do not increase their muscle mass with these treat-
ments. This result has inspired the search for alternative medications.
Procedures designed to increase muscular weight include the use of
growth hormone, intravenous nutritional supplements, and the contro-
versial sedative thalidomide. Recombinant human growth hormone in-
creases muscle tissue and already has FDA approval for other conditions.
Unfortunately, it costs up to $150 per day. Intravenous administration
of supplemental vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes may increase lean
body mass. Yet this treatment remains expensive and requires the in-
stallation of a catheter, which invariably increases discomfort and may
enhance the risk of infection.
Thalidomide, the infamous sleep aid that impairs the arm and leg
development of the fetus, is not currently prescribable. Yet it may inhibit
the release of certain chemicals that exaggerate cachexia. Clinical trials
may show that thalidomide can help increase lean body mass (Krampf,
1997). These treatments may prove superior to cannabinoids and me-
gestrol or work well in combination with them. Despite these limitations,
the cannabinoid drugs show potential promise in the treatment of ano-
rexia and wasting. They also may help reveal a great deal about the way
the cannabinoid system affects hunger and satiety.


Spasticity often stems from nerve problems associated with trauma and
disease. Brain damage, spinal cord injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, and mul-
tiple sclerosis can all lead to this problem condition. It usually includes
uncontrollable muscle flexing, loss of fine motor functioning, and as-
sociated pain. These symptoms can create considerable distress by dis-
rupting activities in daily life. Simple tasks can become great challenges.
People with severe spasticity risk choking as they eat and drink.
Medical Marijuana 187

Uncontrollable movements at night can interrupt their sleep. Walking

grows difficult or impossible, curtailing activities dramatically. Spasms
and poor muscle control can also lead to urinary incontinence. The sum
of all of these problems easily creates irritability, depression, and a tre-
mendous sense of loss (IOM, 1999; Petro, 1997c).
People have known of marijuana’s relaxing effects for thousands of
years, but no direct references to cannabis treatment for muscle spasms
appeared in ancient literature. By the late 1830s, William O’Shaughnessy
had learned of cannabis’s antispasmodic effects while living in India. He
used the drug to treat spasms associated with tetanus and rabies
(O’Shaugnessy, 1842). Less than a hundred years later, large drug com-
panies, including Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis, marketed cannabis tinctures
as antispasmodics (Aldrich, 1997). The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 es-
sentially forced physicians to turn to other treatments. By the 1970s, as
cannabis’s popularity grew, reports of its helpful effect on spasms re-
turned. These reports inspired formal research, which focused primarily
on people with spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis.
Damage to the spine can harm the nerve pathways that extend to
muscles below the site of the injury. Erratic nerve signals may lead to
spastic muscle contraction and all its associated troubles. Over 15 million
people in the world have spinal cord injury; over 10,000 new cases occur
each year in the United States. Many arise from accidents in motor ve-
hicles, on the job, while playing sports, or during acts of violence. The
majority occur in people under age 35 (IOM, 1999).
In the first study of therapeutic cannabis in this population, research-
ers in a spinal cord clinic reported that 5 of 8 men who used marijuana
felt it decreased their spasticity (Dunn & Davis, 1974). An anonymous
survey revealed that 21 of 24 people with spinal cord injuries and spas-
ticity reported that cannabis reduced the symptom (Malec, Harvey, &
Cayner, 1982). A single-case study revealed that oral THC was superior
to codeine in reducing leg spasms in a paraplegic patient with spinal cord
injury (Hanigan, Destree, & Truong, 1986). A study of 5 other paraplegic
patients with spinal cord damage showed that oral THC improved re-
flexes and muscle activity (Truong & Hanigan, 1986). Individuals with
spinal cord problems also report that smoking marijuana decreases sleep
interruptions and nausea (IOM, 1999).
Spinal cord injury is not the only source of spasticity. Multiple sclerosis
can also lead to the symptom. This disease is related to abnormal immune
function and often leads to the destruction and scarring of neurons
188 Understanding Marijuana

throughout the central nervous system. Multiple sclerosis disintegrates

myelin, a fatty covering that helps nerves conduct signals rapidly. This
demylenation alters nerve transmission, leading to a host of symptoms,
including fatigue, depression, dizziness, blindness, incontinence, and spas-
ticity. Over 2.5 million people in the world suffer from multiple sclerosis;
90% of them develop spasticity. Many also report muscle pain and
cramps. By the 1970s, clinical lore praised marijuana’s potential thera-
peutic effects for alleviating spasms.
The initial positive reports from patients inspired more systematic re-
search. An extensive case study revealed that one man with multiple
sclerosis who could not combat his symptoms with standard medications
found extensive relief after smoking marijuana. Independent physicians
confirmed the improvement (Petro, 1980). The results inspired an ex-
periment comparing oral THC to placebo in 9 patients with multiple
sclerosis. These data revealed reduced spasticity as judged by a rater blind
to condition. An electronic measure of muscle tension (EMG) also
showed that THC had a positive effect (Petro & Ellenberger, 1981).
These initial positive results for marijuana as a treatment for spasticity
associated with multiple sclerosis motivated further work. A study of 8
multiple sclerosis patients with disabling tremors confirmed that oral
THC could minimize this symptom better than placebo. Five of the pa-
tients reported a subjective sense of improvement but no other measur-
able changes. Two others reported subjective improvement and showed
an improved ability to write or hold still (Clifford, 1983). The results
may have been less dramatic because of the advanced stage of multiple
sclerosis and the severity of the impairment. People may benefit more in
earlier stages of the disorder. Another study of a man with multiple scle-
rosis showed that smoked marijuana reduced spasticity and improved
uncontrollable motion (Meinck, Schonle, & Conrad, 1989). This patient
also reported enhanced sexual functioning—an important advantage of
marijuana rarely assessed in drug studies.
As recently as 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that studies
of multiple sclerosis lacked a good animal model, limiting research. If
researchers could induce the disease in animals, they could perform many
experiments deemed unethical in humans. This work could help examine
the role of the cannabinoid receptors in spasticity. A new technique may
provide such an animal model. Chronic relapsing experimental allergic
encephalomyletitis (CREAE) involves changes in immune function that
lead to tremor, spasticity, and a loss of myelin comparable to the symp-
Medical Marijuana 189

toms of multiple sclerosis. Extensive study revealed that THC decreases

spasticity and tremor in mice with CREAE. In addition, CB1 antagonists
spoil THC’s ability to limit these symptoms. This work offers consider-
able support for the role of the cannabinoid system in movement prob-
lems (Baker et al., 2000). These animal data and the many, small-scale
human studies mentioned previously justify formal, large-scale clinical
trials of cannabinoid effects on spasticity in multiple sclerosis.

Involuntary Movement

Several disorders show unintentional muscle contractions comparable to

spasticity, but these diseases lead to more dramatic, debilitating motion.
They can create some of the same problems associated with spasticity,
including difficulty sleeping and trouble with fine motor tasks. Given the
large number of cannabinoid receptors in the brain’s motor areas, a few
studies have examined the potential therapeutic effects of cannabinoids
in movement disorders, including Tourette’s, Huntington’s chorea, dys-
tonia, and Parkinson’s.
Tourette’s syndrome, a movement disorder characterized by uncon-
trollable tics and vocal outbursts, may improve in response to cannabis.
Three of four published case histories revealed that smoking marijuana
decreased symptoms. Investigators attributed these results to cannabis’s
anxiolytic effects rather than a direct impact on facial tics (Hemming &
Yellowlees, 1993; Sandyk & Awerbuch, 1988). Interviews with 47 peo-
ple with Tourette’s revealed that 13 reported using marijuana. Eleven of
them (85%) said that the drug markedly improved their symptoms
(Muller-Vahl, Kolbe, & Dengler, 1997). Current pharmacological treat-
ments for the disorder include haloperidol and pimozide, two dopami-
nergic medications that alleviate symptoms but cause dramatic side
effects. These drugs can cause debilitating sedation, aversive muscle stiff-
ness, and dry mouth. The cannabinoids can alter dopamine’s action, too,
and may have advantages over these medications, but only large clinical
trials can reveal the relative efficacy of these drugs.
Researchers have applied cannabinoids in the treatment of
Huntington’s chorea, a heritable, degenerative disease that includes rapid
muscular contractions, emotional lability, and impaired intellectual func-
tioning. The disease characteristically involves a loss of neurons in the
basal ganglia, a forebrain structure rich in cannabinoid receptors. Re-
190 Understanding Marijuana

search on rodents reveals that cannabinoids can improve functioning in

these areas of the brain and decrease involuntary movement (Sanudo-
Pena & Walker, 1997). Unfortunately, human research has been less
promising. A single-case study showed positive effects of cannabidiol,
motivating an experiment on 15 Huntington’s patients given this can-
nabinoid or placebo. The treatment did not improve symptoms, but can-
nabidiol does not activate the CB1 receptor (Consroe et al., 1991; Sandyk
& Awerbuch, 1988). Further work with THC or smoked marijuana
would provide a better test of the efficacy of cannabinoids in treating
Huntington’s disease.
Dystonias, a heterogeneous group of neurological disorders that typi-
cally include involuntary muscle contractions, also may benefit from can-
nabis. A CB1 receptor agonist decreases dystonia in hamsters (Richter &
Loscher, 1994). Cannabidiol, which does not activate this receptor, im-
proved symptoms in 5 dystonic patients (Consroe, Sandyk, & Snider,
1986). The positive effects of both of these drugs suggests a combination
therapy that supplies multiple cannabinoids may prove superior to the
simple administration of oral THC.
Parkinson’s, a disease known for tremor with slow movements and
muscular rigidity, involves the dopamine system. An animal model of the
disorder suggests that cannabinoids might help (IOM, 1999). Neverthe-
less, the only published study on the topic found that 5 patients who
smoked marijuana showed little improvement. They did respond posi-
tively to other medications (Frankel, Hughes, Lees, & Stern, 1990). Ev-
idence for efficacy of THC or smoked marijuana for all these movement
disorders would require considerably more work. Clinical trials compar-
ing standard medications, alternative cannabinoid treatments, and com-
binations of the two may show promise for adding THC, smoked mari-
juana, or other cannabinoids to the arsenal against movement disorders.
Overall, cannabinoid treatments for involuntary movement show more
promise for Tourette’s and dystonia than Huntington’s chorea and Par-


Seizure, a disturbing change of consciousness accompanied by convul-

sions or other involuntary movements, typically stems from synchronized
Medical Marijuana 191

firing of sets of brain cells. Approximately 30 million people suffer from

epilepsy, one of the most common seizure disorders. Current medical
control for seizures remains ineffective for 20 to 30% of people (Petro,
1997b). The potential promise of cannabinoids in controlling seizures
remains unclear. Many case studies suggest that marijuana controls sei-
zures (British Medical Association, 1997; Grinspoon & Bakalar, 1997).
Seizures caused by epilepsy may decrease in response to cannabinoids,
particularly cannabidiol (Petro, 1997b). A study of 8 epileptics found
improvement in seizure symptoms when they took 200 to 300 mg of
cannabidiol (Cunha et al., 1980). In another study, 15 epileptics who
did not respond well to standard treatment received cannabidiol or pla-
cebo in addition to their usual medications. The cannabidiol group
showed greater improvement, but the response was quite variable (Car-
lini & Cunha, 1981). Another study of 12 epileptics using a comparable
design failed to replicate this finding, but the small sample and high var-
iability of responses limited statistical power (Ames, 1986). Only double-
blind, placebo-controlled studies of larger samples can reveal the poten-
tial therapeutic effects of cannabidiol for seizure. In light of the high
rates of failure for other drugs, these initial reports suggest such studies
seem warranted.

Miscellaneous Symptoms

Some therapeutic applications of marijuana have generated less attention

but still hold promise for alleviating symptoms and revealing important
information about the function of the cannabinoid system. A few small-
scale human experiments, animal investigations, and case studies suggest
that cannabinoids may help treat insomnia and anxiety, decrease asthma
symptoms, shrink tumors, kill microbes, and alleviate arthritis pain. Yet
the latest Institute of Medicine report did not focus on this work. The
data on insomnia were quite intriguing. A small sample of insomniacs
fell asleep more quickly after taking THC, but side effects at the highest
dose (30 mg) were excessive (Cousens & DiMascio, 1973). In another
study, 15 insomniacs found that cannabidiol improved the quality and
duration of their sleep (Carlini & Cunha, 1981).
In addition to its efficacy as a sleep aid, cannabidiol may work as an
anxiolytic. One experiment on this topic used public speaking to induce
192 Understanding Marijuana

anxiety. Ten students took placebo, cannabidiol, or an established anti-

anxiety medication (ipsapirone or diazepam), before giving a videotaped
speech. The speech clearly increased each participant’s ratings of anxiety.
Cannabidiol lowered this anxiety significantly. Its effect compared favor-
ably to the established anxiolytics, and it created no side effects. This
evidence suggests that phobics and anxious people might also benefit
from cannabidiol (Zuardi, Cosme, Graeff, & Guimaraes, 1993). Never-
theless, behavioral treatments for these disorders have phenomenal suc-
cess rates without requiring any medication whatsoever (Hope & Heim-
berg, 1993).
Asthma attacks may decrease in response to cannabinoids, but smoked
marijuana obviously seems inappropriate for any respiratory problems.
Asthmatics who inhaled THC through an aerosol device showed im-
proved breathing (Hartley, Nogrady, & Seaton, 1978). Thus, cannabi-
noids may make a nice addition to current asthma treatments. Animal
research beginning in the 1970s revealed that cannabinoids could shrink
tumors (Harris, Munson, & Carchman, 1976). Recent work illuminates
the complicated biochemical mechanisms behind this process (Molnar et
al., 2000). A study of rats suggests that THC’s analgesic effects can apply
in arthritis, alleviating pain and stiffness (Smith, Fujimori, Lowe, &
Welch, 1998). Other animal studies show that cannabinoids may fight
inflammation, bacteria, microbes, and fungi (Kabilek et al., 1960; Turner
& ElSohly, 1981).
A few other potential medical effects of cannabis have appeared in
case studies but no other formal research. These include beneficial out-
comes for treating menstrual cramps, premenstrual syndrome, Crohn’s
disease, tinnitus, schizophrenia, adult attention deficit disorder, uncon-
trollable violent episodes, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and
bipolar disorder. At least one surprising case shows cannabis has helped
end addiction to other drugs. All these problems have popular psycho-
logical and pharmacological interventions that do not include the can-
nabinoids. Yet some of the current treatments have negative side effects.
They also are not effective for everyone. The case studies often portray
individuals with negative attitudes about illicit drugs, who developed
troublesome symptoms, struggled with standard treatments, and even-
tually turned to medical marijuana or oral cannabinoids for relief. These
case studies certainly have many limitations, but they clearly suggest that
the therapeutic uses of the cannabinoids deserve more research (Grin-
spoon & Bakalar, 1997).
Medical Marijuana 193

Legal Issues

A few states have passed legislation approving marijuana prescriptions

for patients. Nevertheless, possession of cannabis still violates federal laws
that carry penalties of fine, imprisonment, and forfeiture of property.
These federal penalties apply even in states that have passed medical
marijuana laws. Thus, local authorities may not prosecute medical mar-
ijuana users, but federal authorities often do. Legal advisors recommend
that any attempts to obtain marijuana for medical purposes should follow
legal channels first. A number of steps may help establish medicinal need,
which may augment defense if a medical user is arrested. Treatments
should begin with THC in pill form, obtained through a physician’s pre-
scription. Reactions to THC in this form may prove appropriately posi-
tive, eliminating the need to use marijuana. Any reactions to the drug
should appear in medical records. If synthetic THC does not alleviate
symptoms, patients should apply to the Investigational New Drug pro-
gram through their physicians. Although the program remains closed,
evidence of these attempts may help a later defense of medical necessity.
Patients should implore appropriate state agencies and ask local politi-
cians to appeal to programs on their behalf.
If none of these steps leads to permission, patients should carefully
weigh the pros and cons of medical marijuana before violating federal
laws. Patients who choose to use marijuana therapeutically should report
it to their physician and monitor any changes in symptoms or decreases
in other medications. Under no circumstances should the medicine be
shared, sold, or given away. Patients should never grow or obtain more
than an adequate supply for personal use (Zeese, 1997). Given that many
states increase penalties for possession of more than an ounce of cannabis,
patients might consider always owning less than this amount (Margolin,
1998). This decision to use medical marijuana can prove extremely risky.
The complexities of this process reveal the odd and conflicted attitudes
many Americans have about the medical use of this drug.


The following list summarizes the efficacy of cannabinoid drugs for med-
ical conditions:
194 Understanding Marijuana

Little evidence for efficacy


Potential evidence for efficacy


appetite loss
glaucoma (alternative treatments may work better)
nauseau and vomiting (alternative treatments may work better, but
they cost more)
weight loss

Therapeutic use of marijuana and cannabinoids has a history spanning

over 4,500 years. Research issues related to establishing the efficacy of me-
dicinal cannabinoids remain complex. The costs and benefits of smoked
marijuana or cannabinoids can vary widely, given the range of individual
reactions to drugs. Medications that may work for the vast majority of
patients can have little impact on others. These idiosyncratic reactions
suggest that patients and physicians can only judge the utility of canna-
binoids on an individual basis.
In general, cannabinoids show promise as medicine but require a great
deal of additional study. Many patients report that smoked marijuana has
advantages over oral THC. Smoking permits a quick assessment of re-
actions and an easy modification of dosage to minimize side effects. Yet
given marijuana’s current status as a Schedule I drug, researchers cannot
investigate its medicinal properties. Most formal medical studies inves-
tigate dronabinol, the synthetic version of THC administered as a pill.
A few consistent findings appear in the literature on medical canna-
Medical Marijuana 195

binoids. THC clearly lowers intraocular pressure associated with glau-

coma, but alternative medications function equally well. Smoked can-
nabis and THC can alleviate pain as effectively as established analgesics
like codeine. Both smoked cannabis and oral THC can also lower nausea
and vomiting. Other antiemetics may produce superior effects, but they
often cost appreciably more. Both smoked marijuana and THC can en-
hance appetite in patients enduring chemotherapy or AIDS. (Smoked
marijuana has some advantages over oral THC for increasing appetite).
These drugs help weight gain, too, though new, experimental medica-
tions may lead to greater increases in lean body mass.
Many case studies and a few controlled experiments suggest canna-
binoids can decrease spasticity associated with spinal cord injury and mul-
tiple sclerosis. Evidence is less compelling for the treatment of other
movement disorders, including Huntington’s chorea and Parkinson’s dis-
ease. Seizures may decrease in response to smoked marijuana or oral
cannabidiol. Case studies support the medical use of cannabis for many
other problems. Combination therapies that employ cannabinoids plus
standard medications could have considerable potential, but researchers
have not completed the appropriate studies.
Continued work on the medicinal uses of marijuana and the canna-
binoids has the potential to enlighten us on the workings of the canna-
binoid system. This research could also lead to improved treatments for
many who suffer from numerous medical conditions.
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Social Problems

The most heated debates about marijuana prohibition often concern the
drug’s role in social problems. Ideally, drug laws should minimize the
negative impact of illicit substances. Arguments for marijuana’s illegal
status often rely on perceptions of the social problems it might cause,
including decreased productivity, dangerous driving, and uncontrollable
aggression. If cannabis created such adverse effects, strong penalties for
its possession, sale, and use would seem warranted. Popular publications
imply that marijuana’s role in amotivation, reckless driving, and aggres-
sion is a proven fact (e.g., Drug Watch Oregon, 1996; Indiana Prevention
Resource Center, 1998; National Institute of Drug Abuse [NIDA],
1998). Yet data reveal that cannabis plays little role in any of these social
problems. Details of the relevant studies appear below.

Amotivational Syndrome

Proponents of marijuana prohibition express concern about the drug’s

long-term impact on motivation. Despite data to the contrary, stereo-
types suggest that regular users of cannabis, particularly adolescents,
transform into apathetic slugs uninterested in school, work, or any pro-
ductive activity (Nahas, 1990). Researchers first identified a subset of
lethargic, unmotivated cannabis smokers over 100 years ago (IHDC,
1894). Yet these data did not prove that marijuana actually altered mo-
tivation. By the late 1960s, investigators coined the expression “amoti-

198 Understanding Marijuana

vational syndrome” to describe indifferent, listless adolescents who

smoked marijuana. Yet the tacit assumption that cannabis drained their
motivation was never tested.
Educators and parents grew particularly worried that marijuana de-
stroyed ambition in the young. Case studies suggested that amotivational
syndrome included poor hygiene and depressed mood, as well as a loss
of energy, productivity, and drive. Authors repeatedly emphasized that
the syndrome included an absence of clear goals or focused effort. Re-
searchers suggested that repeated exposure to the drug created this con-
dition, perhaps through a negative effect on the central nervous system
(McGlothlin & West, 1968; Smith, 1968). Despite evidence to the con-
trary, concern about marijuana’s influence on motivation continues today
(NIDA, 1998). The primary problems with research on amotivational
syndrome concern defining its symptoms and proving marijuana actually
causes them.

Defining Amotivation

Vague definitions and varied measurements of amotivational syndrome

have led to compelling critiques of the idea. Some investigators have
examined employment history and educational achievement; others look
at performance on laboratory tasks. Yet all claim to measure motivation
or amotivational syndrome. Nearly all measurement strategies reflect
stereotypically Western values about productivity. Many researchers tac-
itly assume that motivated people perform well in school, work hard for
their employers, and persevere on laboratory tasks. Yet some of the
world’s most famous achievers failed in these domains. People do not
share the same goals or value the pursuit of objectives in the same way.
Some cultures emphasize future plans over a focus on the present. Oth-
ers clearly do not. In fact, the intense pursuit of future goals may mini-
mize enjoyment of the present moment, leading to considerable distress
(Burke, 1999).
The notion of amotivational syndrome can inadvertently pathologize
behaviors that many people in other cultures find fulfilling (Morningstar,
1985). One culture’s amotivational syndrome may be another culture’s
ideal lifestyle. For example, vacation time varies dramatically from coun-
try to country, reflecting different attitudes about leisure and productiv-
ity (Robinson, 1994). In addition, motivation and achievement do not
Social Problems 199

necessarily lead to happiness or increased satisfaction in life. The idea of

amotivational syndrome may present a false promise that accomplish-
ments lead invariably to happiness.
Even within Western culture, the definitions of amotivational syn-
drome vary considerably. There is no formal diagnosis or established list
of symptoms. Most researchers employ their own unique measures of
motivation, making comparisons between studies difficult. Reports usu-
ally describe amotivation as a subtle shift in priorities. Achievement be-
comes less important; leisure becomes more important. Sufferers pur-
portedly have few long-term goals or no concrete plans for attaining
them. They may lose the ability to concentrate, endure frustration, and
participate in life. If a marijuana-induced amotivational syndrome does
exist, its symptoms do not sound similar to the obvious problems asso-
ciated with the abuse of other drugs. Chronic cannabis users rarely report
the drastic financial, social, and occupational difficulties typical of addic-
tion to alcohol, opiates, or cocaine. Nevertheless, if marijuana created an
absence of drive, it would clearly interfere with the steady achievement
stereotypically associated with the American dream.
The purported symptoms of amotivational syndrome are hardly
unique to cannabis use. Clinical depression often includes the fatigue,
poor concentration, and apathy typical of amotivation. This overlap sug-
gests that a subset of depressed people who use marijuana may account
for clinical observations of amotivational syndrome. Sad, unmotivated
people may happen to smoke cannabis, giving the impression that the
drug has created the symptoms. In fact, the links among depression,
amotivation, and marijuana consumption are not particularly straightfor-
Recent data reveal that cannabis consumption has no significant as-
sociation with depression in adults. A subset of people who use mari-
juana to cope with problems show more depressive symptoms, but it is
not clear that the cannabis caused their depression. People who first
tried marijuana before age 16 showed more depression later in life. Yet
this relationship disappeared when the use of other drugs was taken into
account (Green & Ritter, 2000). A separate study revealed that mea-
sures of motivation correlated more with depression than with mari-
juana consumption, even among heavy users (Musty & Kaback, 1995).
Thus, depression, rather than cannabis, may cause amotivational symp-
200 Understanding Marijuana

Cannabis as a Cause

The idea that marijuana diminishes motivation requires the same firm
evidence of association, temporal antecedence, and isolation discussed in
chapter 3 with the gateway effect. Marijuana must precede and correlate
with amotivation to cause it. The symptoms also must not stem from
some other contributor like personality, depression, or the use of another
drug. Ensuring that amotivational syndrome arises from cannabis requires
experiments. Researchers can randomly assign people to receive cannabis
or placebo. This arrangement ensures that everyone is equally likely to
end up in the group that smokes marijuana, assuring that any identified
deficits arise from cannabis rather than personality, depression, or other
drug use.
In an alternative approach, participants work after smoking a placebo
and at other times after smoking cannabis. This strategy, known as a
“within-subjects design,” ensures that all participants work both intoxi-
cated and sober. Investigators can then compare each person’s intoxicated
performance to his or her own work in the absence of the drug. Under
these circumstances, any identified impairment must stem from cannabis.
Thus, laboratory experiments can rule out alternative explanations for
marijuana’s impact on motivation. This type of research requires exten-
sive time, effort, and funding. Cannabis use over many days should pro-
duce the lethargy and lack of ambition typical of the disorder. Only a
few laboratory experiments provide enough data from repeated daily ex-
posure to provide any meaningful conclusions.

Laboratory Performance

In one of the first studies of chronic cannabis administration, researchers

employed 6 men to build chairs for 70 days. They earned $2 per chair
initially, but went on strike twice and raised their fees. They had periods
without cannabis, and weeks when they could purchase as much as they
wanted, at $.50 per joint. For 28 days, the researchers required that they
smoke at least 2 joints containing a total of 17 mg of THC. Generally,
the men built fewer chairs and worked fewer hours when required to
consume cannabis. They also built fewer chairs immediately after they
went on strike and increased their wages. The men showed no other signs
of amotivation.
This study clearly supports the idea that intoxication can decrease
Social Problems 201

productivity (Miles et al., 1974). Yet it is unclear if this would qualify

as evidence for amotivational syndrome. Arranging for a strike to increase
wages likely required motivation, organization, and drive. Making fewer
chairs might reflect lower motivation, but it more likely offers further
evidence that intoxication impairs performance.
In another study of chronic administration, researchers paid 30 men
to stay in the hospital for 94 days. They ingested no drugs for the first
11 days, smoked cannabis for the next 64, took a break from the drug
for a week, used cannabis daily for 9 more days, and then did not smoke
the last 3 days. The men smoked an average of 5.2 joints per day when
the researchers permitted consumption. They were paid for daily work
on two different tasks. One required adding large numbers on a calcu-
lator. The other required answering textbook questions. Participants re-
ceived $.10 for each correct answer on these two tasks. Acute intoxica-
tion and chronic exposure had no impact on any measure of
performance. The men showed statistically comparable total responses,
total correct responses, errors, and time worked throughout the 94-day
period (Cohen, 1976). These data offer no support for amotivational
These long-term studies offer little support for cannabis-induced losses
of productivity. Thus, proponents of marijuana prohibition often cite
other research that demonstrates decreased motivation during intoxica-
tion. One standard way to manipulate motivation in the laboratory re-
quires offering extra cash for good performance on tasks. In one study of
marijuana’s effects, researchers attempted to increase motivation and per-
formance on simple tasks by offering financial incentives. On a reaction-
time task, intoxicated people did not respond to this incentive as dra-
matically as the people who had not smoked cannabis. Offering extra
money did not motivate people to react more quickly while high, but it
did speed reaction times for people who were not intoxicated. The au-
thors emphasize that this result offers little support for amotivational
syndrome. Instead, these data mean that intoxicated people do not react
to standard techniques for enhancing motivation (Pihl & Sigal, 1978).
Two other studies performed in a residential laboratory revealed that
intoxicated men were less likely to perform tasks that they disliked (Fol-
tin et al., 1989, 1990). After smoking marijuana, these men spent less
time on work and chores and more time on recreational activities. Pop-
ular articles often refer to these studies as evidence for amotivational
syndrome. Perhaps intoxication decreases a person’s willingness to work
202 Understanding Marijuana

on unappealing projects, but this effect hardly parallels the directionless

apathy typical of most definitions of amotivation. If these results qualify
as evidence for amotivational syndrome, then most psychoactive drugs
could serve as a cause. In fact, anything that might create procrastination,
including watching television, could serve as a source of amotivation.
Because laboratory studies of humans offer little evidence for amoti-
vational syndrome, critics point out that the duration of exposure was
relatively brief. A couple of months of chronic smoking may not lead to
any symptoms, but those who believe in amotivational syndrome charge
that the disorder does not appear until later. Few people would partici-
pate in a study for a longer period, but animal research has examined
the impact of 12 months of drug exposure. In this hallmark study, re-
searchers randomly assigned 62 adolescent male monkeys to inhale can-
nabis smoke or a placebo. The dosage was similar to 4 or 5 marijuana
cigarettes for a human. Some received smoke daily, others only on week-
ends, for a full year. This arrangement permitted an examination of the
impact of long-term exposure to cannabis on motivation and perfor-
After the year of exposure, all the monkeys performed two tasks daily
for two months. The tasks were typical for primate research. One mea-
sure, conditioned position responding, provided the monkeys with a
banana-flavored pellet for pressing different buttons in response to dif-
ferent colors. Marijuana had little impact on correct responses. The
monkeys who smoked cannabis performed as well as the placebo smokers
on the rate of responding and the percentage of correct responses. A
subset of monkeys who had smoked every day did not complete as many
trials on this task as the placebo smokers, but only during the last month
of the experiment. Those who smoked cannabis only on weekends did
not differ from the controls on any measure. Thus, conditioned position
responding offers little evidence for amotivational syndrome, even after
a year of cannabis exposure.
Proponents of marijuana prohibition might argue that conditioned po-
sition responding did not require much motivation in the first place. Es-
sentially, the task may have been too easy to show any amotivational
effects. Fortunately, the investigators also used a more difficult measure,
the progressive ratio (PR) task. In the PR task, the monkeys must press
a bar an increasing number of times to receive pellets. If the monkey
presses the bar 3 times to get the first pellet, he has to press it 6 times
Social Problems 203

to get the second pellet, 9 times to get the third pellet, and so on. The
number of required presses progresses upward after each reinforcer.
Among a subset of monkeys who practiced the tasks during their year
of exposure to smoke, those who received cannabis did not perform as
well as those who received placebo. This deficit even appeared for the
monkeys who only smoked on weekends. In contrast, the group who did
not practice showed the same performance whether they had smoked
cannabis or not. That is, those who smoked cannabis but did not practice
the task performed equally as well as those who smoked placebo and did
not practice the task. Thus, the progressive ratio task showed marijuana-
related deficits in monkeys who had practiced the task during the year,
but not in the unpracticed monkeys. This result may mean that monkeys
who practiced while intoxicated did not learn the task as well as the
monkeys who practiced while sober. The responses returned to normal
within 3 months of abstinence from cannabis, when all groups performed
equally well (Slikker, Paule, Ali, Scallet, & Bailey, 1992).
This study of primates shows decreased performance on a difficult
exercise after a year of marijuana use, but only in those who had prac-
ticed the task during their exposure to cannabis. The drug had no impact
on the easier, conditioned position responding. The investigators did not
report changes in hygiene, mood, or other symptoms of amotivational
syndrome. This study and some of the human research certainly confirms
that intoxication can impair performance on some tasks in some condi-
tions. Nevertheless, this seems like rather slim evidence for full-blown
amotivational syndrome. Yet many critics dismiss this laboratory evi-
dence as irrelevant. The term often implies a failure to achieve in life,
not simple deficits on laboratory tasks. To further test the role of cannabis
in motivation, other investigators have examined marijuana’s correlation
with educational and work performance. Impairments on these life tasks
appear more relevant to the idea of amotivational syndrome.

Correlations with Education and Work

Surveys of associations between drug use and job or school activities lack
the experimental control found in the chronic administration studies.
Investigators can only assume that marijuana use causes poor perfor-
mance at work or school. Alternative explanations remain equally tena-
ble. For example, poor adjustment in work or school might lead some
204 Understanding Marijuana

people to use cannabis. A third factor may account for the association,
too. Depressed people might perform poorly and choose to use cannabis.
People with certain personality characteristics might choose to use mar-
ijuana and make school or work a low priority. Thus, a simple association
between cannabis consumption and education or work does not prove
that amotivational syndrome exists. Nevertheless, the absence of an as-
sociation between marijuana and achievement might undermine argu-
ments for cannabis-induced amotivation. It is extremely unlikely that the
drug causes amotivational syndrome if use and performance do not cor-
relate. Therefore, these studies put the theory behind amotivational syn-
drome at risk for refutation.

School Performance

Parents and educators express understandable concern about marijuana,

amotivational syndrome, and schoolwork. Research has focused on aca-
demic achievement in college and high school students. Contrary to pop-
ular belief, over half a dozen studies reveal that marijuana smokers and
nonsmokers have comparable grades in college. One typical report sur-
veyed 1,400 undergraduates, revealing no differences between users and
nonusers on grades, changes in their majors, or number of colleges at-
tended. Chronic users (those who smoked at least 3 times a week for 3
years) took more time off from their schooling but were also more likely
to plan to earn a graduate degree (Hochman & Brill, 1973).
Surprisingly, at least two other studies found higher grades in the mar-
ijuana smokers than in nonsmokers (Gergen, Gergen, & Morse, 1972;
Goode, 1971). Note that, despite these findings, no one has ever pro-
posed that cannabis could help school performance. Users and nonusers
also show no differences in their orientations toward achievement, their
extracurricular activities, or their participation in sports. Thus, research
on college students provides no support for the idea of amotivational
syndrome (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997).
Although cannabis consumption in college has no link to school per-
formance, high school students who use marijuana have lower grades and
quit school more often. Cannabis smokers in high school also spend less
time on their homework and miss more days of school (Kandel & Davies,
1996). At first glance, this association between cannabis and school per-
formance seems consistent with the idea of amotivation. Perhaps can-
nabis destroys motivation in young teens. Yet data do not support this
Social Problems 205

restricted form of amotivational syndrome, either. Most heavy users had

earned lower grades prior to their marijuana consumption, suggesting
cannabis could not have caused the poorer performance (Shedler &
Block, 1990). In addition, high school students who smoke cannabis
heavily also tend to use alcohol and other illicit substances. Once these
factors are taken into account, the link between cannabis and academic
performance disappears. These results suggest that drugs other than mar-
ijuana might lower grades (Hall, Solowij, & Lennon, 1994).
Marijuana probably does not cause poor school performance. Instead,
the regular consumption of cannabis in high school serves as part of a
general pattern of deviance. Heavy users appear more unconventional in
general. They are more critical of society, less involved in church and
school, and more involved in delinquent acts. They often behaved this
way before they ever discovered cannabis (Donovan, 1996). Because
these young people showed these qualities before using marijuana, the
drug seems an unlikely cause of amotivational syndrome in high school
students. Thus, depressed, unmotivated, unconventional adolescents may
choose to smoke marijuana, but the drug does not appear to create their
deviance. Despite this evidence, concerns about drug use in adolescents
inspired the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws to
recommend that only adults consume cannabis (NORML, 1996a).


Two contradictory attitudes have developed about marijuana’s impact on

job performance. Many people believe the drug destroys motivation and
detracts from efficiency, yet others use the drug to enhance their work.
Both ideas may be true, depending on the type of job involved. People
who perform repetitive, simple tasks may turn to cannabis to relieve the
boredom. For example, laborers in India increased their ganja consump-
tion 50% during the harvest season (Chopra & Chopra, 1957). In Ja-
maica, farm hands who smoked marijuana actually worked harder than
those who did not (Comitas, 1976). Perhaps marijuana makes monoto-
nous physical labor more bearable. In contrast, jobs that require complex
or rapid decisions likely suffer during intoxication (Chait & Pierri, 1992).
Thus, the acute effects of cannabis on performance may vary dramatically
with different jobs.
The enduring lack of initiative that defines amotivational syndrome
requires more than brief changes in work performance during intoxica-
206 Understanding Marijuana

tion. Wages, hours, and employment history may serve as better indices
of motivation on the job. Research performed in countries where workers
frequently smoke cannabis has shown little difference between heavy
users, occasional users, and abstainers. These groups had comparable
forms of employment in Costa Rica and Jamaica (Bowman & Pihl, 1973;
Carter, 1980). In Costa Rica, users were unemployed more often than
nonusers, probably because of imprisonment for marijuana offenses. Nev-
ertheless, heavy users had better-paying, higher-status jobs than occa-
sional users or abstainers. People with the most stable employment
smoked 15.4 joints per day. Those who changed jobs more often smoked
less than half that amount, 7.6 joints per day. The unemployed smoked
even less—6.2 joints per day (Page, 1983). Perhaps people with steady
employment have enough experience on the job to function properly
while intoxicated and enough money to afford marijuana.
In the United States, where cannabis consumption is less prevalent, the
impact of the drug on wages, hours, and job turnover still does not support
the idea of amotivational syndrome. Data actually suggest some positive
links between marijuana consumption and work, but only for adults. One
survey of more than 8,000 young adults who held a variety of jobs showed
higher wages with increased use (Kaestner, 1994a). People who had
smoked more marijuana in their lifetimes earned more money. Note that
this correlation does not imply that cannabis consumption actually causes
better pay. Perhaps people who earn more money can afford more mari-
juana. Another report from the same respondents revealed a negative cor-
relation between consumption and work hours for men. Those who
smoked more worked fewer hours. Yet given that their wages were higher,
they may have become more efficient at work. Hours and consumption did
not correlate significantly for women (Kaestner, 1994b).
Other studies of employment histories and drug use reveal that mar-
ijuana smokers do not appear to lose their jobs more often than non-
smokers, even though employers are more likely to fire users of other
illicit drugs (Normand, Salyards, & Mahoney, 1990; Parish, 1989). One
study of over 10,000 military personnel found that cannabis users were
discharged more often (McDaniel, 1988). This result may not actually
address amotivation because possession of cannabis can serve as a reason
for discharge. Some of these recruits may have performed perfectly but
lost their jobs because of possession. This effect did not replicate in a
survey of navy recruits, which revealed that cannabis users were dis-
Social Problems 207

charged at the same rate as others (Blank & Fenton, 1991). The respon-
dents in these studies were all over age 18, so these data do not address
amotivation in adolescents. Nevertheless, cannabis consumption does not
appear to have a dramatic negative impact on wages, hours, or job turn-
over in adults.

Self-Perceptions of Motivation

A few studies have used the direct and intuitive approach of asking users
their perceptions of marijuana’s impact on their motivation. This re-
search did not assess the many hypothesized facets of amotivational syn-
drome, such as lethargy, poor hygiene, and impaired social functioning.
Yet these studies do reveal that a percentage of heavy users think that
the drug saps their ambition or drive. Interpreting these results requires
caution. Many of these participants used illicit drugs besides marijuana.
They also could have suffered from unassessed conditions that under-
mined their energy or motivation. Nevertheless, members of every sam-
ple believe that the drug makes them less ambitious or dynamic. In one
of the first studies of this kind, researchers interviewed 99 New Yorkers
by phone. These people had used marijuana an average of 27 out of the
previous 30 days. Eleven of these people (11%) reported reduced energy
and motivation. Yet alcohol consumption was not reported, and almost
half of the sample used an illicit drug other than marijuana. The report
does not reveal if these 11 people who reported less energy also used
other illicit drugs, but they clearly attributed their lack of motivation to
cannabis (Rainone, Deren, Kleinman, & Wish, 1987).
In another study, investigators interviewed 37 Americans who claimed
to have smoked marijuana at least 5,000 times. Three of these heavy
users (8%) said that cannabis had a negative impact on their work be-
cause it attenuated motivation. In contrast, 7 people (19%) said that the
drug enhanced their creativity and improved their work (Gruber, Pope,
& Oliva, 1997). The investigators purposely excluded people who used
other drugs extensively, which may explain why they found the lowest
rate of reported problems with motivation.
Other researchers interviewed 268 Australians who had smoked mar-
ijuana at least 3 times per week for the previous 10 years. Over one-fifth
of them (21%) felt that cannabis made them tired, unmotivated, or list-
less. It is unclear if they experienced these symptoms during intoxication
208 Understanding Marijuana

or afterward. The use of other drugs in this sample was quite high, which
may have contributed to perceptions of decreased motivation. Almost
one-third (30%) of the respondents reported problematic consumption
of alcohol, a sedative that lowers motivation and energy. Almost one-
fourth (24%) had used an illicit drug besides cannabis in the previous
month (Reilly, Didcott, Swift, & Hall, 1998). Thus, despite heavy drink-
ing and the use of other drugs, these heavy cannabis users still reported
marijuana altered their motivation. Yet the consumption of these other
drugs may have sapped their drive instead.
Note that none of the studies above had a control group that could
reveal if people who do not smoke cannabis also struggle with their pro-
ductivity, enthusiasm, or drive. Many people feel tired, unmotivated, and
low in energy without using any drugs at all. Perhaps marijuana smokers
misattribute these symptoms to the drug. They may experience the nat-
ural ebb and flow of energy that all people feel, but consider this variation
a result of marijuana. For example, a study of 237 students found that
roughly 5% showed amotivational symptoms whether they used cannabis
or not (Duncan, 1987). These results cast doubt on the idea that mari-
juana attenuates motivation. Instead, a percentage of people at any given
time report motivational problems regardless of their drug use. Some of
these people smoke cannabis and therefore attribute their lack of moti-
vation to the drug. Yet tenable alternative sources of these problems may
get overlooked because of expectancies about marijuana.
In another study, occasional marijuana users served as the control
group for a sample of heavy smokers. The 44 occasional users never
smoked more than 10 times in a month. The 45 heavy smokers used
cannabis daily for at least 2 years. Heavy smokers also consumed more
illicit drugs than occasional users, which may account for some differ-
ences between the groups. The groups did not differ in mental health,
anxiety, depression, emotional control, or happiness. Yet the heavy
smokers reported that marijuana was more likely to impair their moti-
vation. The result was statistically significant, but the investigators did
not correct for the large number of variables that they examined. Thus,
this finding may have appeared by chance. If it did not appear by chance,
then heavy users think that marijuana impairs their motivation more than
occasional users. Oddly, despite the potential deficit in motivation, heavy
users reported a trend toward greater life satisfaction. Again, the inves-
tigators did not correct for the large number of comparisons, so this find-
Social Problems 209

ing may also stem from chance. Nevertheless, these results suggest that
heavy users are less motivated but more satisfied with their lives (Kouri,
Pope, Yurgelun-Todd, & Gruber, 1995). Perhaps they have rejected the
conventional notion that motivation and productivity are essential for
Because the data from all these studies are correlational rather than
longitudinal, they do not reveal if the heavy smokers reported poor mo-
tivation prior to ever using cannabis. Perhaps people who do not make
productivity a priority subsequently choose to use marijuana. It is also
unclear if the consumption of other drugs undermined productivity.
Users may attribute their decreased ambition to marijuana when other
drugs may have created the effect. The fact that the one study that spe-
cifically excluded users of other drugs found one of the smallest rates of
motivation problems (8%) (Gruber et al., 1997) supports this idea. Men-
tal or physical illnesses may have contributed to these symptoms, too.
Nevertheless, it is clear that a percentage of people who use cannabis at
high rates feel that the drug impairs their motivation.


Laboratory studies of humans and primates offer little support for amo-
tivational syndrome. School performance does not vary with cannabis
consumption in college students. High school students who smoke mar-
ijuana do worse in school. Nevertheless, most performed poorly before
they used cannabis, and many used other drugs that probably contributed
to their lower grades. Employment data show no links between cannabis
use and lower wages, poor work performance, or job turnover. Self-
reports in heavy users show that a percentage of people think cannabis
impairs their drive, but consumption of other drugs or the presence of
physical and emotional problems may serve as the true cause of their
lack of motivation.
No studies show the pervasive lethargy, dysphoria, and apathy that
initial reports suggested should appear in all heavy users. Thus, the evi-
dence for a cannabis-induced amotivational syndrome is weak. Yet a sub-
set of depressed users may show the symptoms of amotivational syn-
drome (Musty & Kaback, 1995). These people would likely benefit from
cognitive-behavioral treatments for depression, which can improve
mood, motivation, and achievement.
210 Understanding Marijuana

Reckless Driving

Amotivational syndrome is not the only social problem attributed to mar-

ijuana. The drug’s potential role in auto accidents has also generated
considerable concern. In 1997, traffic accidents in the United States num-
bered 16 million and caused 43,000 deaths. Comparable numbers of
crashes and fatalities have likely occurred in more recent years (Bureau
of Census, 1999). These statistics raise an understandable concern about
impaired driving. Many drugs can increase highway mishaps. Alcohol is
perhaps the most common and notorious cause of accidents. Common
antidepressants, antihistamines, and tranquilizers also reduce driving skill
(Riedel et al., 1998).
Cannabis intoxication clearly alters thought and memory, leading
many researchers to investigate its role in highway fatalities. Popular
publications imply that marijuana contributes significantly to accidents
(Mann, 1985; Swan, 1994), but data do not support these conclusions.
Research on cannabis and traffic safety relies on two approaches: epide-
miological studies of crashes and laboratory experiments with intoxicated
drivers. In general, studies reveal that marijuana has no effect on culpa-
bility for fatal crashes if a driver’s age and blood alcohol concentration
are taken into account. (Younger drivers who drink alcohol account for
many traffic casualties.) Cannabis also does not increase the risk of ac-
cidents that cause injury. Marijuana intoxication might increase the
chances of other, more minor accidents, but no data address this ques-
Cannabis may not impair driving. Laboratory experiments using driv-
ing simulators and actual performance on the road reveal that motorists
intoxicated with cannabis compensate for the drug’s cognitive effects.
They drive more slowly, leave more space between cars, and take fewer
risks. Thus, current data suggest that cannabis likely does not increase
reckless driving or accidents. Nevertheless, these experiments rarely focus
on dangerous situations that might require rapid responses to avoid a
wreck. In addition, recent work reveals that the combination of alcohol
and cannabis can meaningfully increase driving problems. Given mari-
juana’s proven ability to impair attention and rapid responses, the Na-
tional Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws strongly urges
users to avoid driving while high (NORML, 1996a). Driving after con-
Social Problems 211

suming alcohol, particularly in combination with cannabis, is extremely

dangerous and ill-advised. Thus, users who wish to reduce the drug’s
harm should never operate a motor vehicle during intoxication.

Epidemiological Studies

Nearly a dozen studies from all around the globe report the frequent
presence of THC in the bloodstreams of motorists involved in accidents
that caused death or injury. At first glance, these results seem to support
the idea that cannabis increases crashes. Yet, depending on the study, as
many as 84% of these users were intoxicated with alcohol at the time.
Ethanol’s detrimental effect on driving is well established and seems the
most parsimonious explanation for these mishaps. Analyses that exclude
the presence of alcohol revealed that marijuana’s impact was not signif-
For example, data from over 1,000 drivers involved in fatal accidents
in Australia revealed that cannabis was present in 11% of them. Ratings
of the accident reports revealed that drivers who had consumed alcohol
or the combination of alcohol and cannabis were culpable more often
than drivers who were free of drugs. In contrast, ratings revealed that
those who used only cannabis were responsible for accidents less often
than those who used no drugs at all (Drummer, 1994).
Curiously, many studies of marijuana and traffic safety found that the
odds of causing death or injury were slightly lower in cannabis users than
in people who had not consumed drugs (Bates & Blakely, 1999). For
example, the study of Australian motorists mentioned above showed that
consumers of cannabis were 30% less likely to cause accidents as drivers
who had not used any drug. A study of over 300 drivers involved in fatal
crashes in California focused on motorists who tested positive for can-
nabis but no other drug. Unexpectedly, they were half as likely to be
responsible for accidents as those who were free of substances (Williams,
Peat, & Crouch, 1985).
Another investigation of over 1,800 fatal crashes in the United States
found that drivers who used only cannabis were only 70% as likely to
have caused an accident as the drug-free group (Terhune, Ippolito, &
Crouch, 1992). None of these estimates revealed statistically lower
chances of accidents in cannabis users, but the consistency of these results
raise interesting questions. Although no one would recommend mari-
juana as an aid to safe driving, perhaps the actions of cannabis users differ
212 Understanding Marijuana

from drug-free drivers when they get behind the wheel. Laboratory re-
search provides a potential explanation for these findings.

Laboratory Experiments

Another approach to answering questions about cannabis and traffic

safety involves randomly assigning motorists to ingest THC or placebo
before driving. This approach has several advantages over epidemiological
work. Critics might argue that epidemiological studies of THC’s presence
in crashes may create a confounding bias. They assert that people who
choose to smoke marijuana and drive may be more disinhibited or thrill-
seeking than those who do not drive during cannabis intoxication. These
people also may drive more poorly in general, even while completely
sober. Thus, any epidemiological evidence for elevated THC rates in driv-
ers involved with accidents may simply reflect an underlying driving def-
icit correlated with the propensity to smoke cannabis before operating a
motor vehicle. THC may not impair driving, but poor drivers may use
Laboratory experiments can bypass this problem in two ways. Re-
searchers can randomly assign drivers to receive cannabis or placebo. This
arrangement ensures that good and bad drivers are equally likely to end
up in the group that smokes marijuana before driving. Random assign-
ment assures that any identified deficits arise from intoxication rather
than a biased sample. In an alternative approach, participants drive once
after smoking a placebo and again after smoking cannabis. This tech-
nique, known as a within-subjects design, ensures that all the people
drive both intoxicated and sober. Then, investigators can compare each
individual’s performance while high to his or her own performance in
the absence of the drug. Again, under these circumstances, any identified
impairment must stem from intoxication. Thus, laboratory experiments
rule out alternative explanations for marijuana’s impact on driving.
A review of more than a dozen of these experiments reveals three
consistent themes. First, after smoking marijuana, users drive more
slowly. In addition, they increase the distance between their cars and the
car in front of them. Third, they are less likely to attempt to pass other
vehicles on the road. All these practices can decrease the chance of
crashes and certainly limit the probability of injury or death if an accident
does occur. These three habits may explain the slightly lower risk of
accidents that appears in the epidemiological studies. These results con-
Social Problems 213

trast dramatically to those found for alcohol. Alcohol intoxication often

increases speed and passing while decreasing following distance, and
markedly raises the chance of crashes (Smiley, 1986).
Additional work performed since Smiley’s (1986) review confirms
these effects. One recent, comprehensive paper reported four different
experiments examining the impact of THC and alcohol alone and in
combination. Men and women smoked joints containing 0, 100, 200, or
300 micrograms of THC per kilogram of body weight. The active doses
correspond to approximately a half, one, or one-and-a-half joints for a
150-pound person. Participants drank placebos or enough alcohol to
maintain breath alcohol concentrations of approximately .04%. (This
dose corresponds approximately to drinking 2 beers quickly on an empty
stomach for a 150-pound man.) Participants then drove in different
places on separate occasions, including a deserted stretch of road, in reg-
ular highway traffic, and on city streets. A driving instructor sat beside
them, rating their performance. (A second set of controls allowed the
instructor to drive if needed.) These studies have advantages over re-
search that employs driving simulators because performance in a real car
in regular traffic likely generalizes to other driving situations better.
Participants performed two different driving tasks. One task, the road-
tracking test, simply involved maintaining a constant speed of 90 kilo-
meters (roughly 55 miles) per hour and staying within a designated lane.
The other task, the car-following test, involved maintaining a constant
distance behind a vehicle that altered its speed and acceleration. Mari-
juana produced two consistent effects. The drug significantly increased
lateral movement within the traffic lane. That is, participants’ cars
weaved from side to side within the lane more after smoking cannabis
than after smoking placebo. In addition, cannabis caused drivers to in-
crease their distance from the vehicle in front of them during the car-
following test. Marijuana did not alter any other way that the drivers
handled the vehicle, maneuvered through traffic, or turned the car. In
contrast, alcohol not only increased lateral movement in the lane, but it
also impaired vehicle handling and maneuvers. The two drugs combined
produced the most impairment of all (Robbe, 1998).
Thus, although traffic accidents kill thousands each year, marijuana’s
role in reckless driving is markedly smaller than some popular
publications imply. Epidemiological research reveals that those who test
positive for cannabis and no other drug do not cause accidents any more
often than people who are drug free. Laboratory research shows that
214 Understanding Marijuana

cannabis intoxication increases lateral motion within the traffic lane but
does not impair handling, maneuvering, or turning. Obviously, no one
should operate dangerous machinery of any kind under the influence of
a mind-altering drug. The National Organization for the Reform of Mar-
ijuana Laws strongly encourages users to never drive during intoxication.
Nevertheless, the impact of cannabis on reckless driving appears ex-
tremely small. Although traffic fatalities remain a serious social problem,
marijuana appears to play a minimal role in their cause.


In addition to concerns about loss of motivation and reckless driving,

many people fear that cannabis intoxication can lead to hostility. Reviews
of the cannabis literature invariably reflect writers’ prejudices. Summaries
of studies on marijuana and aggression may reveal these biases more than
any other area of research. Interpretations of this literature are incredibly
disparate. One author’s evidence for marijuana’s connection to violence
serves as another author’s proof that the drug does not cause aggression.
Interpretations of a study of murderers illustrates this point. In this
research, interviews with 268 incarcerated murderers revealed that 72 of
them had smoked cannabis within a day of the homicide. Of these 72,
18 claimed that marijuana contributed to the murder in some way. Fif-
teen of these 18 were intoxicated with other drugs at the time, too
(Spunt, Goldstein, Brownstein, & Fendrich, 1994). The researchers re-
ported these facts clearly, but interpretations of their meaning vary dra-
matically. One review cites this study as an example of cannabis leading
to violence (Sussman, Stacy, Dent, Simon, & Johnson, 1996). Another
uses it as an illustration of the rarity of marijuana-induced hostility, em-
phasizing how other drugs likely account for the relationship between
cannabis and aggression (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997). Thus, any interpre-
tations of data from this field require a close reading of the original stud-
People have assumed drugs lead to violence at least since the seven-
teenth century. Intoxication, withdrawal, and chronic use of alcohol and
stimulants clearly increase aggressive acts (Kleiman, 1992). Legislators
often justify drug prohibition as an effort to decrease violence. Ironically,
data suggest that strict enforcement of these laws leads to a hostile un-
Social Problems 215

derground market and a climbing murder rate (Miron, 1999). Despite

evidence for increased aggression associated with other drugs, the vast
majority of work shows that cannabis does not induce hostility. This
research includes the standard series of case studies, correlational reports,
and laboratory experiments.
Each of these research approaches has strengths and weaknesses, but
the general conclusions remain the same. Direct links between cannabis
intoxication and violence do not appear in the general population. A few
studies show correlations between marijuana consumption and violent
acts, but these links frequently stem from personality characteristics or
the use of other drugs. People who are violent or who use drugs that
lead to violence often also smoke marijuana, but the marijuana does not
appear to cause the violence.
Laboratory studies also find no link between cannabis intoxication and
violence. Most people who ingest THC before performing a competitive
task in the laboratory do not show more aggression than people who
receive placebos; occasionally, they show decreased hostility. Numerous
scientific panels sponsored by various governments invariably report that
marijuana does not lead to violence (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997). Yet two
studies reveal small but significant links between cannabis and aggression
with very select populations under extremely circumscribed conditions.
If these findings replicate, further work may reveal a great deal about
aggression in general and subsets of individuals susceptible to provocation
during marijuana intoxication.

Historical Precedent

Nearly every discussion of cannabis and aggression begins with legends

about the assassins. Hasan, the leader of an unorthodox Muslim sect in
the year 1090, allegedly kept his power by commanding his followers to
assassinate his rivals. The fierce fighting of Hasan’s devotees inspired tales
of their unparalleled loyalty. Their loyalty allegedly stemmed from a be-
lief that completing their missions guaranteed entry into paradise. One
tale revealed that new initiates of the sect were drugged, blindfolded, and
taken to a lush garden filled with exotic diversions. They left the garden
with the promise that they would return at their deaths if they followed
Hasan’s orders. This experience purportedly motivated the followers to
act as instructed. Later versions of the tale implied that the drug used to
sedate them was hashish. Subsequent adaptations suggested that they
216 Understanding Marijuana

took hashish to whip themselves into a frenzy immediately before the

Oddly, these tales did not lead people to believe that cannabis aided
sleep. Instead, the idea spread that hashish intoxication caused aggres-
sion. Some people asserted that the name given these murderous follow-
ers of Hasan even derived from the name of the drug. These hashish-
eating killers were called “assassins.” Better evidence suggests “assassin”
may have originally meant “follower of Hasan.” The root word “hassa”
actually means “kill” or “exterminate,” revealing that assassin probably
means “killer” rather than “hashish eater.” Nevertheless, the connection
between assassins and hashish remains in the minds of many (Casto,
1970). Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,
cited the story of the assassins as evidence of marijuana-induced violence
(Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974). Modern authors still suggest that the drug
leads to hostility (Schwartz, 1984). This belief may stem from poor in-
terpretations of individual cases.
Some of the most sensationalistic, gory case studies came from the
Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s. Most told of marijuana users who
committed heinous crimes. Many times the details did not reveal if the
crime actually occurred during marijuana intoxication. Yet media atten-
tion focused on marijuana’s link to violence. Unfortunately, plausible al-
ternative explanations did not receive the same level of enthusiastic cov-
erage. A classic example concerned a Florida murder case from 1933.
Victor Licata, a known cannabis user, killed his parents and three siblings.
A local paper attributed the murders to the drug, and Harry Anslinger
used the case as an example for many, many years.
Despite initial reports of this event, further investigation revealed that
Licata may have heard voices at the time of the murders. He suffered
from a serious, psychotic, mental illness. Many members of his family
also struggled with psychotic disorders. Licata may have had a history of
violence prior to his drug use. Yet none of these possibilities appeared in
the press (Kaplan, 1970). A close look at another case study frequently
cited by the Bureau of Narcotics revealed that the murderer had claimed
to use marijuana when, in fact, he had not (Bromberg, 1939). Some
authors accuse Harry Anslinger of focusing on tales like these in an effort
to justify a larger budget for the Bureau of Narcotics. Others also suggest
that William Randolph Hearst published anti-cannabis stories in all of his
newspapers to keep hemp production from undermining the value of the
forests he owned (Herer, 1999; Sloman, 1998).
Social Problems 217


A more scientific way to investigate marijuana’s link to violence appeared

in studies of crime rates. Researchers have looked for an association be-
tween violent crime and cannabis consumption for at least 70 years. This
association does not prove that marijuana causes aggression, but any the-
ory linking cannabis and violence would suggest that the two should
covary. Early studies of military personnel, arrestees, and patients in
mental hospitals revealed no relationship between cannabis and violent
One typical study examined rates of aggressive crime in military pris-
oners. Marijuana users were no more likely to commit crimes of violence
than nonusers (Bromberg & Rodgers, 1946). Some studies revealed fewer
antisocial behaviors in cannabis smokers than in users of other drugs
(Abel, 1977). Later research confirmed these findings. For example, a
study of 109 delinquent boys revealed that violent offenses had no link
with cannabis consumption, but had significant associations with cocaine
and amphetamine use (Simonds & Kashani, 1980).
A few recent studies reported small but statistically significant asso-
ciations between marijuana consumption and violence in select groups
of adolescents. Yet the effects were extremely small, meaning that the
amount of violence increased only a little as the amount of cannabis
consumption increased a lot. (Correlations were approximately .20 and
only reached statistical significance because of the large sample sizes).
These studies asked teens about their marijuana use, as well as the fre-
quency of their aggressive acts, but failed to assess if they were high when
they were hostile. Thus, they do not support the idea that cannabis
causes violence. Instead, a subset of teens may choose both to use
marijuana and behave aggressively because of an underlying personality
characteristic or tendency (Sussman, Simon, Dent, Steinberg, & Stacy,
1999; White & Hansell, 1998; White, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber, &
Farrington, 1999). People who seek thrills or have trouble inhibiting
themselves might engage in both cannabis consumption and violent be-
havior. Yet neither one caused the other. The use of other drugs, includ-
ing alcohol, may be a more likely explanation for the aggression. In fact,
when one group of researchers included previous violence and alcohol
consumption in their analyses, the links between marijuana and aggres-
sion disappeared (White et al., 1999).
Other studies suggest that these small links between cannabis con-
218 Understanding Marijuana

sumption and hostility do not mean that marijuana intoxication leads to

aggression. For example, a group of adolescents charged with violent
crimes reported that cannabis was likely to decrease aggressiveness (Tink-
lenberg, Murphy, Murphy, & Pfefferbaum, 1981). Fewer than 4% of peo-
ple report that they think marijuana makes them angry or hostile (Da-
vidson & Schenk, 1994; Halikas, Goodwin, & Guze, 1971). Research
participants have lower scores on questionnaires designed to assess hos-
tility, anger, and aggressiveness if they answer after smoking cannabis
(Abel, 1977). Yet some of the most compelling evidence that the drug
does not increase hostility stems from laboratory work that actually mea-
sures belligerent behavior.

Laboratory Research

A sophisticated way to examine marijuana’s impact on aggression re-

quires providing THC to participants in the laboratory. Few people be-
have in a hostile fashion in such a formal setting, so most studies provoke
participants to see if they will aggress in response. A popular paradigm
uses a competitive game. The participant competes against an opponent
to provide a faster, correct response. The winner of each trial can give
the loser an electric shock. (A later version of the task allows the winner
to take money or points from the loser).
In fact, the opponent is bogus and the results are fixed. The participant
loses a specified number of times. The experimenter makes it seem as if
the opponent provides increasing or heavy penalties in an effort to pro-
voke aggression. This paradigm may seem an absurd analogue of hostile
interactions in everyday life. Yet former prisoners with histories of ag-
gressive acts do behave more aggressively in this game. Frustration, drug
withdrawal, and other conditions that should increase violence also in-
crease aggression in the game (Cherek, Moeller, Schnapp, & Dougherty,
1997). Laboratory studies using this paradigm find that marijuana intox-
ication rarely heightens hostile responses. Participants gave stronger
shocks when intoxicated with alcohol, but THC had no impact. A high
dose of THC actually lowered aggression, despite the provocation inher-
ent in the task (Myerscough & Taylor, 1985; Taylor et al., 1976). These
results suggest that cannabis intoxication does not increase aggression in
a normal population.
One study using a variation of this paradigm has received considerable
Social Problems 219

attention because it appears to reveal increased aggression during mari-

juana intoxication. Eight inner-city men who regularly used cocaine and
other drugs participated. Seven of them were diagnosed with antisocial
personality disorder, a problem formerly known as sociopathy, which
frequently accompanies troubles with drugs and violence. This study used
the revised paradigm that allows participants to take away points that
could be traded for cash. (Researchers dubbed this procedure “the point
subtraction paradigm.”) These antisocial participants showed more ag-
gression while intoxicated with cannabis, but only for the first hour after
smoking (Cherek, Roache, Egli, Davis, et al., 1993). Analyses of later
sessions of the game do not appear in the article, presumably because
they showed no significant effects.
Interpreting these limited effects in such a small sample proves diffi-
cult. Perhaps a subset of individuals react more aggressively after smoking
cannabis. Other drugs also seem to induce greater violence in subsets of
people. For example, data suggest that men with antisocial personality
disorder show greater increases in aggression after alcohol than men with-
out the disorder (Moeller, Dougherty, Lane, Steinberg, & Cherek, 1998).
Nevertheless, this single, small laboratory study should not lead people
to believe cannabis causes violence, particularly given the other studies
that show no marijuana-induced aggression.
One other laboratory study examined aggression associated with mar-
ijuana withdrawal. The researchers used the point subtraction paradigm
in a sample of 19 people who had smoked cannabis at least 5,000 times.
These participants met criteria for substance dependence. The control
group consisted of 20 people with markedly less involvement with mar-
ijuana. They all played the point subtraction game on days 1, 3, 7, and
28 of an inpatient stay in the detoxification unit of a hospital. Participants
who were cannabis dependent behaved more aggressively than the con-
trols on days 3 and 7. They were also more aggressive than they had been
on day 1. By day 28, their aggressive responses returned to baseline and
did not differ from the aggression shown by the controls (Kouri, Pope,
& Lukas, 1999). This study provides an intriguing interpretation of other
links between marijuana and aggression. Although intoxication does not
lead to hostility, periods of withdrawal might. Perhaps the small links
between cannabis and aggression in studies of crime arose because of
withdrawal rather than intoxication. A replication of this study would
prove most illustrative.
220 Understanding Marijuana


Despite ancient tales and widespread misperception, marijuana intoxi-

cation does not lead to aggression in the general population. Self-reports
of experienced users suggest that the drug makes them feel mellow and
calm rather than hostile and unfriendly. Research on crime reveals little
impact of cannabis on violence. The vast majority of laboratory research
shows that marijuana intoxication does not increase hostile responding.
A few weak associations between cannabis and aggression arise in small
subsets of the population, like delinquent teens, psychopaths, and
marijuana-dependent individuals experiencing withdrawal. The drug’s
absence of an impact on hostility has led every major commission report
to conclude that cannabis does not increase aggression.


Prohibitionists suggest that marijuana creates meaningful social problems,

including amotivational syndrome, reckless driving, and aggression. Re-
search in each of these domains reveals that these concerns are un-
founded. Evidence for a marijuana-induced amotivational syndrome is
lacking. A subset of depressed users may have inspired a few case studies
that report apathy, indifference, and dysphoria, but cannabis likely does
not cause these symptoms. The drug does not correlate with grades in
college students. High school students who use marijuana have lower
grades, but their poor school performance occurred prior to their con-
sumption of cannabis. Cannabis users do not show worse performance
on the job, more frequent unemployment, or lower wages. In addition,
long-term exposure to cannabis in the laboratory fails to show any mean-
ingful or consistent impact on productivity.
Links between cannabis and reckless driving are also weak and usually
stem from co-occurring alcohol consumption. People with THC but no
alcohol in their blood do not have higher rates of culpability for traffic
accidents than drug-free drivers. Laboratory experiments that administer
THC and placebo to motorists reveal an increased weaving within the
lane that accompanies intoxication. Yet these drivers also spontaneously
slow their speed, increase their following distance, and rarely attempt to
pass other cars. In contrast, alcohol, even at relatively low doses, clearly
impairs driving.
Social Problems 221

The association between cannabis intoxication and aggression is also

unlikely. Most studies of violent crime show no link to marijuana use or
small correlations that suggest a few aggressive people also happen to
smoke cannabis. Laboratory research on general samples shows no in-
creases in aggression during intoxication. Concerns about people’s pro-
ductivity, impaired driving, and hostility are certainly important, but al-
tering marijuana consumption will likely have little impact on these social
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Law and Policy

The brief history of marijuana laws in the United States reflects consider-
able controversy. Proponents and opponents of current cannabis prohibi-
tion make moral and practical arguments for their positions. Recent efforts
to decriminalize the drug have fueled debates about the implications of
limiting penalties for possession. Some people view current punishments
as inappropriate, given the limited negative consequences associated with
marijuana use. Others long to maintain the status quo or request tougher
sanctions in hope of decreasing harm and creating a drug-free America.
Several authors propose steps beyond decriminalization to legalization
in an effort to eliminate the underground market in cannabis. These an-
tiprohibitionists have suggested a variety of plans, ranging from an un-
regulated free market to a highly taxed, controlled, and licensed arrange-
ment. Proponents of decriminalization and legalization suggest that
changes in current laws could save taxpayers money, decrease the poten-
tial for violations of civil rights, and still keep marijuana-induced harm
to a minimum. In contrast, prohibitionists assert that changes in policy
would convey tacit approval of drug use, leading to increased consump-
tion of marijuana and other illicit substances and exacerbating negative

A Brief History of Marijuana Legislation

Before the 1900s, cannabis products were legal in the United States.
Although the young American Fitz Hugh Ludlow described cannabis in-

224 Understanding Marijuana

toxication in The Hasheesh Eater in 1857, few other U.S. residents had
any exposure to the recreational use of the drug for many years. The
practice of smoking marijuana, often attributed to immigrants from the
West Indies and Mexico, had little impact on national policy before the
1930s. State and city regulations developed against the drug first. Local
ordinances against “loco weed” appeared in El Paso as early as 1914. All
of Texas prohibited the drug by 1919. Thirty-two states enacted mari-
juana prohibition by 1933, often based on stories of the drug inciting
immigrants to violence.
With the help of Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau
of Narcotics, the federal government passed the Marijuana Tax Act in
1937. This tax regulation did not make the drug illegal, but required a
prohibitive fee of $100 per ounce for the transfer of marijuana. Posses-
sion of the drug without the appropriate tax stamps was a federal crime.
Anslinger justified the law with graphic reports of murder and mayhem
that the drug supposedly induced. Current data prove that marijuana
intoxication does not lead to these crimes (see chapter 9). By 1940, every
state had outlawed the drug. Public opinion held that this intoxicant
could prove more dangerous than heroin. Thus, possession of cannabis
carried identical penalties to heroin possession. Sanctions increased in the
1950s (Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974; Weisheit, 1992). At that time in
Georgia, a second conviction for sale to a minor carried a death sentence
(Himmelstein, 1986).
Attitudes changed by the late 1960s. As more young people experi-
mented with the drug, perceptions of its effects shifted. People ques-
tioned previous media portrayals of marijuana enslaving all users and
transforming them into deranged, criminal freaks. Arrests remained fre-
quent, but penalties decreased by the mid-1970s (Brown, Flanagan, &
McLeod, 1984). By 1978, at least 11 states had decriminalized posses-
sion. This decriminalization minimized the state penalties for owning
cannabis, but federal laws still applied. Thus, federal authorities could
still prosecute anyone found with marijuana in these states.
Many other states did not decriminalize but often dropped charges for
first-time offenders possessing small amounts. A dozen states erased the
record of first-time possession offenders after a period of appropriate
conduct. President Carter even recommended federal decriminalization,
emphasizing that the laws provided worse negative consequences than
the drug. Activists in the era predicted that most states would legalize
the drug within a few years (Sloman, 1998).
Law and Policy 225

Despite the hopes of marijuana activists, the pendulum swayed back

toward criminalization by the early 1980s. Perhaps as a result of outside
political pressures, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) de-
picted marijuana use as the United States’ most serious problem (Koski
& Eckberg, 1983). Penalties increased again. Some states that had pre-
viously decriminalized possession reinstated sanctions. Enforcement of
paraphernalia laws grew more frequent. Possession of water pipes, roach
clips, and anything else related to drug administration remains a crime.
Censors attempted to classify promarijuana publications as paraphernalia,
making books and magazines that discuss the drug illegal. The DEA de-
veloped marijuana eradication programs, which searched specifically for
cannabis fields to burn. The programs expanded from Hawaii and Cali-
fornia to include over 40 states. Growing concerns about the impact of
drugs on the productivity of workers motivated an increase in drug test-
ing. Support for decriminalization waned and the enforcement of legal
sanctions increased (Brown et al.,1984; Weisheit, 1992).
In contemporary policy, almost anything involving marijuana carries
penalties in the United States. Possession, transportation, cultivation,
sales, offering to sell, and driving under the influence all qualify. Selling
oregano or other legal substances as if they were cannabis is also a crime.
Possession of marijuana paraphernalia also violates criminal codes. Pen-
alties vary dramatically from state to state and increase with repeated
offenses and larger amounts of the drug. Some penalties are relatively
small. A first offense of possession of less than an ounce in California can
lead to as little as a $100 fine. Others are markedly larger. In Rhode
Island, possession of over 5 kilograms can lead to a $1,000,000 fine and
life imprisonment. The potential exposure of minors to the drug also
increases penalties. Many states have added sanctions for possession near
a school or housing project; some states double penalties for sales to a
Several states also suspend the driver’s license of anyone convicted of
a marijuana crime, even if the crime did not involve a car. Some areas
will only reinstate these suspended licenses after treatment for substance
abuse. These laws essentially mandate therapy for anyone who possesses
marijuana. Suspensions may last as long as 5 years. Drug seizure laws es-
sentially add more penalties. Police can force people suspected of mari-
juana offenses to forfeit cash, cars, houses, boats, farms, or any other
property that may have facilitated a crime. Any property potentially
purchased with money obtained through the sale of marijuana is also
226 Understanding Marijuana

subject to forfeiture (Boire, 1992). A majority of people who forfeit

property actually may never face criminal charges (Schneider & Flaherty,
1991). Thus, police suspicion alone may lead to the loss of a home, car,
or boat.

Arguments about Prohibition

Proponents and opponents of marijuana prohibition argue about the costs

and benefits of relevant laws on a number of grounds. Most arguments
concentrate on estimates of expenses related to enforcing the laws and
the price of drug-induced harm. Different perceptions of these factors
lead to different opinions about marijuana policies. The arguments usu-
ally attempt to estimate the advantages and disadvantages of the current
laws relative to alternative proposals. Ideal policy would eliminate the
negative consequences of the drug cheaply and efficiently. Most argu-
ments are internally consistent given a specific set of assumptions. De-
bates between proponents and opponents of prohibition often arise be-
cause they cannot agree on the same values for their underlying
A taxonomy of prohibition arguments has developed, describing sets
that ostensibly rely on morals and rights, or costs and benefits. The dis-
tinction among these types of arguments can be artificial. Assertions re-
lated to morals and rights can reflect perceptions of good and evil that
purportedly transcend simple assessments of expenses or harm. Yet ex-
planations of why some acts are wrong often rely on their associated
negative consequences. Utilitarian arguments sometimes appear to
weight costs and benefits in an objective manner. Yet they assign these
weights based on underlying perceptions of right and wrong that often
reflect a sense of morals or rights.

Purportedly Moral Arguments for Prohibition

Any discussion of morality can inflame people. These issues remain com-
plex, emotional, and difficult to summarize. Entire books devote hun-
dreds of pages to morality and law related to drug policy (e.g., Fish,
1998). Only highlights of some of the most prominent debates appear
here. Moral arguments in support of prohibition focus on the perception
Law and Policy 227

of ethical behavior. Some proponents of these moral arguments claim

that their rationales are independent of the consequences of actions. That
is, some behaviors may be wrong, even if they do not necessarily lead to
harm. Thus, these arguments do not rely directly on estimates of the
damage marijuana causes. According to some legal moralists who support
prohibition, cannabis remains outlawed because it is wrong. If a medi-
cation or therapy appeared that could counteract any potential harm
marijuana might cause, use would remain wrong. Even in this harmless
condition, the drug should continue to be illegal.
Former drug czar William Bennett uses moral explanations in his
work. “The simple fact is that drug use is wrong. And the moral argu-
ment, in the end, is the most compelling argument” (Bennett, 1991).
The reasons marijuana consumption is wrong often rely on incontestable
ethical insight (Husak, 1998). Yet when pressed to explain these ethics,
moralists often turn to utilitarian assessments of harm. For example,
Barry McCaffrey, the former drug czar, argues that drugs are wrong be-
cause they are “destructive of a person’s physical, emotional, and moral
strength” (Raspberry, 1996). Data on the impact of marijuana on moral
strength remain unavailable. Physical and emotional effects are well doc-
umented, but relying on these data may turn a moral argument into a
utilitarian assessment of costs and benefits.
These moral arguments in support of prohibition may stem from at-
titudes about pleasure, productivity, intoxication, and self-control. One
assumption underlying moral arguments concerns the idea that pleasure
should only reward contribution to society. Essentially, pleasures should
follow concerted, responsible productivity. Thus, consuming the drug is
morally wrong because it creates pleasures that some people do not be-
lieve are properly earned. In addition, attitudes about intoxication and
its link to productivity may also underlie these arguments. Any state of
impaired thought may hinder productivity, which violates the work ethic
many people view as intrinsically American. Others suggest that intoxi-
cation destroys the ability to behave in safe, conscionable ways. Legal
moralists who support prohibition assert that any change in drug policy
would be immoral because it sends the wrong message to citizens. Some
authors assert that moralists think that the drug should remain illegal at
any expense (Husak, 1992). Note that these arguments eventually resort
to utilitarian assessments of potential harm. Explanations for the morals
often lead to evaluations of costs and benefits.
228 Understanding Marijuana

Purportedly Moral Arguments against Prohibition

Some arguments against prohibition stem from perceptions of constitu-

tional and human rights. These rationales also often rely on perceived
links between rights and morality. Like the moral arguments to support
prohibition, these arguments against prohibition purportedly do not rely
on estimates of harm. Most focus on the guarantees of the Constitution,
including the rights to freedom of religion, privacy, and property. Mor-
alists against prohibition argue that current drug laws infringe on these
rights. They assert that prohibition is immoral because it violates these
principles of the Constitution.
Arguments in support of religious rights related to drug consumption
appear particularly complicated. The quest for freedom of religion drove
many Europeans across the Atlantic in the first place. At least two relig-
ions have formal histories of using marijuana as a sacrament: the Brah-
makrishna sect of Hinduism and the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Both
have a long tradition of cannabis rituals. Moralists against prohibition
argue that members of these churches should continue their practices as
part of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Most
draw parallels between cannabis rituals and the religious use of wine by
American Jews and Christians. These supporters obviously view the ben-
efits of religious freedom as more important than the costs of marijuana
The U.S. courts do not support these religious arguments against pro-
hibition (Leary v. U.S., 1967; Olsen v. D.E.A., 1989). Prohibitionists em-
phasize that wine is not consumed to the point of intoxication in most
religious rituals. Moralists against prohibition often point to the Jewish
practice of drinking to intoxication on the holiday of Purim. They also
emphasize the sacramental use of peyote in the Native American
Church, which was protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom
Act Amendments of 1994. Peyote clearly causes intoxication. Prohibi-
tionists argue that peyote is used less widely than marijuana and may
prove easier to keep under control. The Native American Peyote ritual
also specifies particular and infrequent times for ingesting the substance.
In contrast, sacramental consumption of cannabis often occurs many
times per day. Moralists against prohibition emphasize the right to free-
dom of religion over any aspects of controlling the drug. (Note that these
arguments eventually resort to utilitarian assessments. Thus, moralists
Law and Policy 229

against prohibition may see threats to religious freedom as more harmful

than any negative consequences of peyote or cannabis consumption.)
Despite protest, the Court continues to support prohibition, and re-
ligious use of cannabis remains illegal. The hallmark Supreme Court case
related to this issue, Employment Division v. Smith (1990), concerned
sacramental peyote use. The case has generated commentaries that could
fill a small library. Like all Supreme Court cases, this one does not lend
itself to an easy summary. A private organization fired two substance
abuse counselors for their sacramental use of peyote. When the men
applied for unemployment, the state turned them down because they
had lost their jobs due to misconduct. The Court ruled that the Free
Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment does not bar the
“application of a neutral, generally applicable law to religiously motivated
action.” The ruling allowed the state to deny unemployment payments.
This case suggests that people cannot sidestep laws for religious reasons,
unless the laws unconstitutionally attempt to regulate religious practice.
Moralists against prohibition also view the ingestion of marijuana as a
personal act protected by their interpretation of the Constitution’s right
to privacy. A huge legal literature exists on the right to privacy. Moralists
against prohibition assert that, although the Constitution does not guar-
antee a right to privacy directly, any activity conducted alone or among
intimates (that does not harm others) might have constitutional protec-
tion. This interpretation of the right rests on a few previous cases. For
example, the right to use birth control has been protected under the
right to privacy. Moralists against prohibition assert that cannabis con-
sumption should qualify under this right as well. Alternative arguments
suggest that the right to privacy only applies in important, fundamental
decisions similar to having children. These interpretations imply that us-
ing marijuana lacks the fundamental import to fall under a right to pri-
This right to privacy became particularly relevant in a classic state case
in Alaska, Ravin v. State. In an effort to test the applicability of a right
to privacy, attorney Irwin Ravin arranged to have himself arrested for
possession in 1972. State judges determined that the right to privacy
applied in this case. They emphasized that the noncommercial, individual
aspects of the situation made the ingestion of marijuana consistent with
the right to privacy. After this decision in 1975, the Alaska legislature
removed criminal penalties for possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana
230 Understanding Marijuana

for personal use. Nevertheless, in 1990, the drug was again criminalized
in Alaska. Enforcement of the new law may be rare (Gordon, 1994). A
subsequent federal case (NORML v. Bell, 1980) was unsuccessful in ar-
guing that the right to privacy applied to marijuana possession. The court
asserted that using marijuana was not a fundamental or established right
important enough to qualify for privacy protection. Thus, moralists
against prohibition who rely on arguments related to the right of privacy
currently have no support from the federal courts.
Another moral argument against prohibition focuses on the right to
property. Thomas Szasz, the psychiatrist who gained notoriety for his
debates about conceptualizations of mental illness, emphasized that
drugs are personal property. Given this fact, they therefore qualify for
constitutional protection. The argument suggests that any state interfer-
ence with drugs violates this right to property as depicted in the Four-
teenth Amendment. Szasz and other libertarians do not advocate drug
consumption. They view the decision to use drugs as part of an individ-
ual’s liberty and responsibility—a moral issue outside the realm of leg-
The U.S. Supreme Court did not uphold this type of argument (Crane
v. Campbell, 1917). In this case, an individual asserted that the state’s
prohibition against possession of alcohol conflicted with the Fourteenth
Amendment’s declaration that no State shall “deprive any person of life,
liberty, or property without due process of law.” The Court did not see
the right to possess liquor as a fundamental privilege that no State could
violate. Thus, the same rules apply to possession of marijuana.
Another argument suggests that drug use relates to the right to self-
determination. Self-determination may fall under the Ninth Amendment,
which emphasizes that citizens have rights that are not specifically listed
in the Constitution. According to this line of reasoning, the right to de-
termine what enters one’s own body qualifies as this sort of self-
determination. Legal scholars opposed to prohibition argue that this
amendment applies to the possession and ingestion of drugs. Drugs were
freely available to everyone at the time the framers drafted the Bill of
Rights. Szasz and others suggest that the originators of the Constitution
likely viewed the freedom to ingest whatever one chooses as too intui-
tively obvious to mention as a specific right (Szasz, 1992). Other students
of history do not agree with this suggestion. Marijuana cases related to
the right to self-determination have not appeared. Most arguments that
Law and Policy 231

rely on interpretations of the Ninth Amendment do not fare well in the


Arguments Based on the Consequences of

Drug Use and Drug Laws

Many prohibitionists assert that legislators developed marijuana laws to

minimize any potential harm that users may cause for themselves or
others. Yet data suggest that drug prohibition and strict law enforcement
creates an underground market rife with violence. For example, prohi-
bition and strict law enforcement leads to increases in murder rates (Mi-
ron, 1999). Other authors argue that marijuana prohibition evolved from
racist attitudes against immigrants who used the drug (Musto, 1999).
Financial incentives also may have motivated the legislation. For example,
Herer (1999) suggests that William Randolph Hearst wanted to eliminate
hemp production so his extensive holdings of wooded land could serve
as the sole source of pulp for the production of paper. Hearst’s many
newspapers published alarmist tales of atrocious, marijuana-induced
crimes to inspire antimarijuana legislation. The laws also made hemp
illegal, allowing the tycoon’s logging industry to flourish.
Whatever the origin of the laws, prohibitionists frequently point to
low levels of use and problems as signs of success of marijuana control.
About one-third of American adults have tried marijuana in their life-
times, but only 3% report using the drug once a week or more
(SAMHSA, 1997). Generally, fewer than 10% of regular users experi-
ence problems related to the drug (Weller & Halikas, 1980; see chapter
2). Cannabis causes markedly less harm than other drugs, particularly
alcohol and nicotine. Few people clamor for admission to drug treatment
for marijuana troubles. No one hocks their possessions or turns to pros-
titution to support a cannabis habit.
The low rate of marijuana-related harm is certainly encouraging. Nev-
ertheless, antiprohibitionists argue that it may not stem from the drug
laws. Legal sanctions against intoxicants can decrease their use in many
ways. Laws may increase fear of arrest, decrease the availability of drugs,
or raise prices. Marijuana laws, however, do not appear to have as much
impact in these domains as prohibitionists might hope. Most people who
do not use marijuana claim that they abstain because they have no in-
terest in the drug; they do not report that a fear of legal problems mo-
232 Understanding Marijuana

tivates their behavior (Maloff, 1981). Fear of arrest is actually remarkably

low. People who use cannabis but do not sell it probably only have a 2%
chance of arrest per year (MacCoun, 1993).
Few people claim that they would change the amount they used if
marijuana were legalized (Johnston, Bachman, & O’Malley, 1981). A
poll of 1,400 adults found that over 80% claimed that they would not
try the drug even if it were legal (Dennis, 1990). In fact, some users
joke that the drug would no longer produce intoxication if it were le-
galized (Lenson, 1995). These data require cautious interpretation.
People are notoriously poor at explaining why they behave in certain
ways, or how they would act if conditions were dramatically different.
A long period of legalization may alter these attitudes dramatically,
making people more likely to try the drug if sanctions disappeared. Nev-
ertheless, few report that fear of arrest changes their marijuana con-
The impact of marijuana laws on availability of the drug also appears
small. Every year since 1975, over 80% of high school seniors have re-
ported that marijuana is fairly easy or very easy to purchase (Johnston,
Bachman, & O’Malley, 1996). Most teens find beer more difficult to buy
than cannabis (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse [CASA],
1996). The price of marijuana undoubtedly increases because of its illegal
status. Yet users may be relatively insensitive to price, at least to the
extent that it can be manipulated by legal sanctions (MacCoun, 1993).
The drug is actually quite cheap compared to other intoxicants, costing
a couple of dollars per hour of altered consciousness. Marijuana intoxi-
cation may be less expensive than seeing a movie in a theater. Thus,
these data suggest that the current laws may have little impact on use
because they fail to create fear of legal sanctions, decrease availability, or
raise prices enough to eliminate demand. Nevertheless, studies of areas
that have actually changed their laws may provide a better picture of the
impact of different policies.

The Decriminalization Experience

Areas where marijuana is decriminalized can reveal some of the potential

effect of legal sanctions. Findings from these areas, however, conflict.
Some studies reveal little change in use; some suggest increases after
many years of relaxed policies. The Netherlands, Australia, Italy, and
Law and Policy 233

Spain have removed criminal sanctions for possession of a few grams of

The decriminalization of cannabis and hashish in the Netherlands re-
mains widely misunderstood. Marijuana and associated products remain
illegal as part of international treaty. In 1976, the Dutch decided to
eliminate enforcement for violations involving sale or possession of up to
30 grams. Thus, police do not enforce laws against marijuana if the
amount involved is too small. Dutch policy makers hoped that this
change in enforcement might help separate the marijuana market from
the sale of drugs with markedly worse negative consequences. After this
policy began, many coffee shops began selling marijuana and hashish.
Legal guidelines for these cafes developed. They may not advertise, per-
mit gambling, sell hard drugs or alcohol, admit anyone under 18, or op-
erate near a school. International pressure forced a reduction in the
maximum amount of an individual sale to 5 grams in 1995. Neverthe-
less, patrons can buy from six different shops and obtain 30 grams quite
These controversial policies attracted considerable attention. Critics of
Dutch decriminalization predicted that drug use would skyrocket. Yet
marijuana consumption in the Netherlands remains comparable to use in
the United States. Critics were particularly concerned about undermining
the prevention of drug use among youngsters. Some studies suggest that
rates of use are actually lower in the Netherlands than in areas where
harsher penalties continue. Recent data reveal that only 21% of Dutch
citizens age 12–18 ever tried the drug, compared to 38% of Americans
that age. Recent studies found that only 11% of Dutch youth reported
using marijuana in the past month, but 18% of Americans the same age
smoked cannabis in the previous four weeks.
Despite these data, marijuana use may have increased for one age
group since the policies changed. The rates of use within the Netherlands
have increased for the specific subset of the population age 18–20. In
1984, 15% of 18–20-year-olds had tried the drug; by 1996, the percent-
age increased to 44% (de Zwart, Stam, & Kuiplers, 1997; NIDA, 1997).
An increase 8 years after the initial steps of decriminalization may reflect
a gradual change in attitudes about the drug. The fact that the increase
appears specifically around the age of permitted use may show some sort
of rite of passage into adulthood. Perhaps turning 18 years old leads to
a party devoted to trying the drug, much the way Americans get drunk
when they turn 21.
234 Understanding Marijuana

Many people fear that decriminalization of marijuana creates higher

rates of use of other drugs. Data from the Netherlands do not support
this concern. Although comparisons between different countries remain
difficult to interpret, heroin and cocaine use remains lower in this area
than in countries with harsher penalties for marijuana. The number of
heroin users per capita in the United States (308 per 100,000 residents)
dramatically exceeds the number in the Netherlands (160 per 100,000
residents) (Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport, 1995). In ad-
dition, fewer teens try cocaine in the Netherlands than in the United
States (Zimmer & Morgan, 1997). Perhaps the decriminalization of mar-
ijuana has weakened its connection with these other substances. Given
that people can obtain cannabis in shops where cocaine and heroin are
forbidden, purchasing marijuana no longer must lead to exposure to
harder drugs. Increased availability of cannabis may have decreased in-
terest in other intoxicants, too.
Not all data on decriminalization polices come from the Netherlands.
Two of Australia’s eight territories also decriminalized possession of less
than 25 grams of marijuana. Consumption of cannabis in a public place
and sales of the drug remain illegal. People in South Australia and Aus-
tralian Capital Territory face fines up to $150 for possession. Offenders
receive a Cannabis Expiation Notice, much like a traffic ticket, and must
pay their penalties within 60 days. They also have their cannabis confis-
cated. Law enforcement officers find these notices easier to issue and
sustain than a full arrest. Thus, the number of offenses has increased
dramatically. In a sense, this approach has increased the likelihood of
penalties despite decreasing their severity. Yet rates of marijuana con-
sumption in the decriminalized areas remain comparable to the rates in
Australian territories with harsher penalties (Ali et al., 1998; McGeorge
& Aitken, 1997; National Drug Strategy, 1995).
Although data from the Netherlands and Australia suggest that de-
criminalization may not increase marijuana consumption, many Ameri-
cans see the experience of other countries as irrelevant to the United
States. Comparing data across different countries with different policies
creates many interpretive problems (MacCoun & Reuter, 1997). Thus,
perhaps only data from within the U.S. borders remain relevant. Eleven
states essentially removed criminal penalties for possessing small amounts
of marijuana by 1979: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota,
Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon.
Decriminalization in America has led to little change in marijuana use,
Law and Policy 235

much like the experience in the Netherlands and Australia. Use by high
school seniors in decriminalizing states did not differ from use in other
states where sanctions remained (Johnston et al. 1981). Oregon, Maine,
and California showed little change in use by adults after decriminaliza-
tion (Maloff, 1981). Other states may have had comparable experiences.
Prohibitionists emphasize that federal laws against marijuana remained
throughout these periods of state decriminalization. Federal laws may
have helped keep cannabis consumption from skyrocketing in the de-
criminalized states. Fans of decriminalization point to data from these
states and the Netherlands and Australia to suggest that harsh criminal
penalties for marijuana possession may not deter use any more than sim-
ple, civil fines. Nevertheless, prohibitionists suggest that decriminaliza-
tion will undermine the perceived harmfulness of the drug, leading to
increased use and problems many years in the future. A change in federal
laws may have long-term implications that data from other countries or
a few states cannot reveal.

Estimating the Costs of Marijuana Prohibition

Whatever the benefits of marijuana prohibition, the laws also generate

costs. These include the price of law enforcement and incarceration. In
addition, the taxes that a legal marijuana market could generate are also
lost. Other costs may transcend finances. Current methods of enforce-
ment may lead to a loss of civil rights and decreased respect for the law.
These costs all prove difficult to estimate. Law enforcement officials do
not break down their expenses by the type of drug they anticipate elim-
inating. Budget information can help the estimation process. The federal
government spends $15.7 billion annually on drug prohibition (Office of
the National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP], 1997a). State and local
governments spend approximately $16 billion annually enforcing drug
laws, for a total of nearly $32 billion (ONDCP, 1997b). Approximately
43% (642,000) of the 1.5 million drug arrests in 1996 were for marijuana
offenses (FBI, 1997). If all arrests were equally costly, America spent
$13,760,000,000 on marijuana arrests—approximately $21,400 for each
one. Some arrests undoubtedly cost more than others. Even if marijuana
enforcement cost only half this amount, Americans have clearly spent
billions in an attempt to eradicate this drug and will likely continue to
do so.
236 Understanding Marijuana

Another potential financial cost of marijuana prohibition concerns tax

revenues lost to the underground market. Proponents of legalization em-
phasize that taxing marijuana could fund drug prevention or treatment
programs or help pay the national debt. Moralists in support of prohi-
bition find this argument reprehensible. Nevertheless, if the drug were
legal, it would become markedly cheaper to produce. The expense as-
sociated with hiding the crops from law enforcement and poachers would
likely decrease. (As a comparison, the price of alcohol and its production
dropped after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.)
Taxes on marijuana could maintain its current price. The tax might
help pay to ensure a quality product, labeled according to potency, and
free from contaminants like pesticides. Ideally, this arrangement would
encourage users to purchase taxed, legal cannabis rather than marijuana
with unknown characteristics from the underground, illicit market. The
exact amount lost under prohibition is difficult to estimate, but probably
approaches several billion dollars. Current estimates suggest that mari-
juana is the fourth most valuable crop in the United States, behind corn,
soybeans, and hay (NORML, 1996b). This estimate assumes a wholesale
price near $2,700 per pound, generating approximately $15 billion. Re-
tail prices for sales of markedly less than a pound can run three times
that amount or more. Taxes and licensing fees associated with this market
might generate several billion dollars each year (Kleiman, 1992). Esti-
mates that include revenue from income taxes for workers in the mari-
juana industry suggest prohibition may cost over $10 billion per year in
lost funds (Rosenthal & Kubby, 1996). This money might finance pro-
grams to discourage problematic use of the drug.
Other losses attributed to prohibition include concerns about civil
rights and respect for the law. The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of
Rights protects citizens against searches that lack probable cause. Recent
drug cases have permitted law enforcement officers considerable latitude
in their interpretation of reasonable suspicion and the appropriate justi-
fication for arrest. Some judges assert that this latitude is necessary given
the creative strategies that drug traffickers employ. Stricter guidelines
might limit the number of arrests. Critics argue that this unrestrained
approach essentially violates the Fourth Amendment. They also detail
misunderstandings that have led to illegal searches and even loss of life
because activities in poor neighborhoods were misinterpreted as drug
deals. Putting an exact price on these drawbacks of prohibition is im-
Law and Policy 237

possible. Balancing them against lost arrests also defies simple analysis
(Ostrowski, 1998).
These concerns about violations of civil rights associated with law en-
forcement may contribute to a general disrespect for the legal system.
Many citizens view penalties for possession of marijuana as too harsh.
They also see minorities as unfairly targeted for arrest. Data support this
assertion. Caucasians are underrepresented in marijuana arrests. Given
the number of Caucasians who report using marijuana, a disproportionate
number of minorities find themselves in court for marijuana crimes
(Mandel, 1988). Many people also consider marijuana prohibition hy-
pocritical given the legal status of alcohol and tobacco. These factors
undermine the efficacy of drug regulations and may cause some law-
abiding citizens to lose respect for legislation in general (Packer, 1968).

Alternative Plans

Many people argue for the status quo on cannabis policy, but a number
of authors suggest alternatives. The range of proposals for changes in
marijuana legislation encompasses everything from harsher penalties to
completely unregulated legalization. Each relies on moral arguments or
predictions about potential costs and benefits of new policy. Most fall
between extremes, focusing on decriminalization or legalization with in-
creased regulation. The regulations frequently include taxes, controlled
sources of sales, strict age limits, penalties for inappropriate use, and
special licenses for users. All these proposals have advantages and dis-
advantages, much like current policy. Some reformers recommend fed-
eral changes that should apply throughout the country; others assert that
marijuana’s regulation should parallel alcohol’s and become the authority
of each individual state (Benjamin & Miller, 1991).

Getting Tough

Efforts to increase penalties generally rely on their ability to deter any

behavior. Proponents of stiffer sanctions assert that they would eliminate
drug use. Proposals include a very extreme approach typified by the ex-
pression “If you try, you die.” In 1990, when he was chief of police in
Los Angeles, Daryl Gates suggested that occasional marijuana smokers
238 Understanding Marijuana

should be “taken out and shot” (Gordon, 1994). This approach to casual
consumption would likely inhibit many users. Malaysia and Singapore
impose the death penalty on drug trafficking. Casual users in these coun-
tries can receive imprisonment in centers purportedly designed for re-
habilitation. These centers include such therapeutic activities as solitary
confinement and hard labor. Both countries have arrest rates for drug
possession that are 30% lower than those in the United States (Benjamin
& Miller, 1991). For obvious reasons, reports of use are probably ex-
tremely low.
Critics of these policies bemoan the violations of civil rights that their
enforcement would likely require. They also point to data that suggest
that the severity of penalties may have little impact without increases in
the probability of arrest (MacCoun, 1993). Appreciable increases in the
probability of arrest could prove extremely expensive. More law enforce-
ment personnel, court costs, and prison facilities could cost as much as
$150 billion. In addition, many users may turn to alcohol or prescription
drugs in an effort to substitute for marijuana. The health impact of these
changes could prove quite expensive because the negative consequences
associated with problem use of these drugs may be more severe than
those related to cannabis. Moralists in support of prohibition, particularly
those who appreciate these policies, suggest that the decrease in drug
use is worth the price of increased enforcement.


Decriminalization proposals generally range from those employed in a

few states in the United States to those closer to situations in the Neth-
erlands. Several states in America keep production and distribution of
marijuana illegal, but remove the risk of arrest for possession of small
amounts for personal use. Civil penalties remain, with fines up to about
$500. This approach minimizes one of the most dramatic negative con-
sequences of marijuana consumption: jail time. Data suggest that law
enforcement expenses also decline after decriminalization (Aldrich &
Mikuriya, 1988). As previously mentioned, rates of use have not sky-
rocketed relative to areas that maintain criminal penalties. Some in-
creased reports of use may arise from a growing willingness to admit to
smoking marijuana after criminal penalties disappear.
Despite the advantage of money saved with little increase in con-
sumption, disadvantages to decriminalization remain. This approach does
Law and Policy 239

little to combat the underground market. Exposure to this underground

market also may increase contact with drugs markedly more harmful than
marijuana. The potential tax dollars lost to prohibition continue under
decriminalization. A decriminalization format closer to Dutch policy may
combat some of these problems but may also create new ones. Removing
penalties and adding taxes for sale of small amounts, if properly regu-
lated, could increase revenues. This approach has not increased use in
the Netherlands; perhaps U.S. residents may respond comparably. As-
suming that regulation’s price did not exceed the taxes generated, this
approach could earn money and minimize the underground market (Klei-
man, 1992). Nevertheless, rates of use may creep upward over many
years in ways that data currently available cannot reveal. Problems would
likely increase as use increased, with unknown associated expenses.


Legalization proposals are dramatically different from any plans for de-
criminalization. They also show considerable range. A libertarian, free-
market proposal suggests regulations of marijuana should be similar to
those for any other goods for sale. These plans often rest on moral ar-
guments for drugs as property (Szasz, 1992). Some legalization proposals
employ the “tomato model,” suggesting rules for cannabis should parallel
those for standard agricultural products (Evans, 1998). These approaches
would certainly eliminate expenses related to law enforcement and any
concerns about violations of civil rights, but the impact on use and prob-
lems proves difficult to estimate. No country or state has actually legal-
ized in this fashion; estimating the associated changes in use and prob-
lems proves extremely difficult. As mentioned earlier, many who do not
use cannabis claim legal sanctions have little to do with their decision to
abstain. Nevertheless, a long era of unregulated legalization may change
these reports. The ingenuity of advertisers and marketers might lead to
considerable increases in use.
Other proposals generally include markedly more regulation. These
regulations were designed to limit use, particularly by minors. Most pro-
pose taxes that would fund law enforcement, drug abuse prevention, or
local schools. Various bills have appeared in state legislatures over the
last 30 years. For example, in 1971, the New York Senate reviewed a
bill that would make marijuana control comparable to alcohol’s, with
additional limits on advertising. The Cannabis Revenue and Education
240 Understanding Marijuana

Act appeared in Massachusetts in 1981 and proposed taxed, regulated

production and distribution of cannabis, with half the proceeds funding
public education against marijuana abuse.
The Cannabis Revenue Act, a federal bill proposed in 1982, offered
different options to states. All states could, of course, continue prohibi-
tion if they desired. They could allow federally licensed retailers to sell
one-ounce packages bearing cautionary labels and a tax stamp. The Act
also permitted states to form alternative plans. Sales to minors and driv-
ing under the influence would continue to carry severe punishments.
Obviously, this Act did not receive enough support to become federal
law. Oregon and Pennsylvania state legislatures reviewed comparable bills
the following year. The bills in both states limited sales to state-run
stores. These reforms have yet to pass any legislature, so their impact
remains unknown. Nevertheless, they have the potential to drop law
enforcement costs and minimize the underground market (Evans, 1998).
They could also inadvertently increase consumption and problems.
Other reformers suggest additional regulations, including licensing
users and limiting the amount they may purchase. This approach would
provide a specified supply of marijuana to licensed users, perhaps through
mail-order or state-run stores (Kleiman, 1992; Nadelmann, 1992). This
strategy has the advantages of other legalization proposals. The govern-
ment could tax the drug. Most consumers would prefer legal cannabis
with competitive pricing, detailed labeling, and assurance of quality, to
the underground market’s product. This approach would minimize the
exposure to other drugs that often accompanies purchases in the under-
ground market. The expenses related to law enforcement and various
violations of civil rights would decrease dramatically. Each purchase
could also include a detailed pamphlet explaining how to prevent harm
from the drug, including information on self-help groups or treatment
People experiencing problems with the drug might choose to turn in
their licenses. Obtaining the license might require an exam comparable
to the written driver’s test. To obtain a license, users would have to
demonstrate a thorough understanding of relevant laws, as well as rec-
ommendations for preventing problem use. Any inappropriate behaviors,
including driving under the influence, public intoxication, convictions for
other illicit drug use, or providing the drug to unlicensed users, could
lead to loss of the license in addition to other penalties. This approach
Law and Policy 241

could help minimize irresponsible behaviors under the influence, as well

as distribution to minors or people with drug problems.
Specifying a limited amount for purchase remains difficult. Smaller
quantities may not only decrease the probability of problem use but also
may keep the underground market alive. Taxing marijuana at a rate that
would make the legal price appreciably less than the underground price
might help eliminate illicit sources of the drug. Unfortunately, this ar-
rangement may encourage licensed users to sell their legally obtained
cannabis at a profit—an offense that would lead to penalties and a loss
of the license.
Estimating a reasonable limit requires a number of assumptions. In-
dividual differences in reactions to the drug are quite large. The average
amount of time intoxicated per unit dose would have to be determined
for the marijuana for sale. If one gram led to roughly 4 hours of intoxi-
cation, 52 grams per year (a little less than two ounces) would permit
licensed users to spend roughly 2% of their time under the influence of
the drug. This 4 hours per week would be more time than most people
spend in houses of worship, and roughly one-seventh the amount of time
the average person spends watching television (A. C. Nielson Co., 1998).
Those who use less of the drug need not purchase as much. Those who
require more for medical reasons could arrange prescriptions for larger
Salient drawbacks to the licensing proposal concern the inestimable
impact it may have on the number of marijuana smokers, and the ethical
issues involved with controlling access to the names of licensed users.
Getting a license could turn into a rite of passage into adulthood, which
might increase interest in consumption. Yet licensing users and limiting
purchases could minimize negative consequences of the drug, even if
more people decided to consume it. The privacy of an individual’s license
remains a complex issue. Although data are unclear about the health risks
of moderate use of marijuana, insurance companies may want to alter
the premiums of licensed users.
Additional questions about revealing the status of individual licenses
relate to employment. Although marijuana intoxication may enhance
performance in some dull, repetitive jobs (Carter, 1980), it may impair
performance on other important ones. Some proposals suggest that li-
censed users may not qualify for certain jobs, such as air-traffic controller.
These proposals may confuse licensing use during free time with intox-
242 Understanding Marijuana

ication during work hours. Just as millions of workers who purchase al-
cohol legally do not attend their jobs drunk, a licensed marijuana user
need not report to work high. Yet the fear of violations remains too great.
These general fears inspired dramatic efforts related to drug testing in
the workplace, another complex legal issue.

Drug Testing at the Workplace

Employers have an understandable interest in maximizing the perfor-

mance of employees. Many are concerned that drug users may work less
efficiently, have more accidents, or use more medical benefits. Other
employers may favor hiring abstainers because of moral objections to
drug use. Over 80% of major U.S. firms test for drugs, spending millions
of dollars in the process. Opponents of employee drug testing view it as
a degrading experience that qualifies as an illegal search and seizure. They
also argue from a more utilitarian perspective that the costs of testing
outweigh the benefits.
Studies of cannabis users in the workplace may help answer some
relevant questions about efficiency, accidents, and medical benefits. Few
data address the efficiency of marijuana smokers at their jobs. One study
reports they earn higher wages (Kaestner, 1991). Intoxication on the job
would likely impair performance, though some workers report improved
manual labor after smoking (Carter, 1980). In fact, very few people ac-
tually use illicit drugs at work. Any residual effects from marijuana con-
sumption off-duty appear slight to nonexistent (Normand, Lempert, &
O’Brien, 1994). A study of accidents in post office employees found no
differences between drug users and nonusers (Zwerling, Ryan, & Orav,
1990). This absence of an effect likely stems from the infrequency of
drug consumption at work. Marijuana appears to have no impact on
health benefits, either. A study of a large group of HMO patients in
California’s Kaiser Permanente program compared medical costs of users
and nonusers and found no differences (Polen, 1993).
Given these limited benefits of identifying marijuana smokers, the
costs of drug testing may only appear worthwhile to those with a strong
moral opposition to cannabis. A study of the federal government’s $11.7
million drug testing program examined the efficiency of the procedure.
Given the large number of abstainers and the price of the tests, identi-
Law and Policy 243

fying a single drug user cost $77,000. Proponents of the program argue
that the tests deter drug use in employees, but the rate of positive tests
parallels the reported rates of drug use in the nation. Thus, government
workers use illicit drugs at the same rate as others, suggesting that the
tests do not deter consumption.
In addition to their direct cost, drug tests decrease productivity be-
cause employees are not working while providing hair or urine samples.
Data suggest that computer firms with drug testing programs actually
score lower on productivity measures than comparable firms that do not
test for drugs. The impact on employee morale can also be particularly
negative. Some companies have dropped preemployment drug testing
because it impaired their ability to hire qualified applicants. Alternatives
to drug testing include many money-saving strategies that lack the deg-
radation often associated with drug tests. Most approaches focus on em-
ployee performance rather than drug consumption. Jobholders whose
work needs improvement receive appropriate feedback and employee
assistance. Individuals in positions that require optimum performance to
ensure safety can complete brief cognitive tests prior to the beginning of
work. Supervisors can send impaired workers home whether their deficits
stem from intoxication, fatigue, or illness (Maltby, 1999).
Many people dislike drug testing in the workplace and take extreme
steps to undermine its efficacy. A small industry has developed in reac-
tion to widespread drug testing. This industry sells products designed to
enhance the chances of testing negative despite drug use. A number of
shampoos purportedly mask drug use for the hair test. Data suggest that
they may decrease concentrations of cannabis metabolites in hair, but a
single administration will not bring them to undetectable levels (Rohrich,
Zorntlein, Potsch, Skopp, & Becker, 2000). Several compounds added
to urine may create false negatives, but laboratories now test for them.
Drug lore suggests false negatives increase with the ingestion of various
herbs, cranberry juice, vinegar, mineral oil, lemon juice, or diuretics.
These approaches also have no empirical support, except for effusive
urban legends (Coombs & West, 1991).
A few legends about drug testing are based in fact. Drinking huge
amounts of water likely lowers the concentration of metabolites in the
urine. The first urine of the day may contain more metabolites than those
given at other times. Scheduling tests for later in the day may increase
the chances of false negatives. Otherwise, long periods of abstinence are
244 Understanding Marijuana

the only guarantee of a negative drug test. The numerous products and
extensive clinical lore designed to combat drug testing reveals a negative
attitude toward this indirect side effect of current attitudes and policies.


Despite cannabis’s long history, American federal laws about the drug
did not appear until the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Stories of drug-
induced mayhem led to this first legislation. Attitudes about cannabis
have shown considerable variation over the 60 years that followed. Pen-
alties initially grew more harsh. Selling the drug to a minor could bring
the death penalty in some places during some eras. In the 1960s, as more
middle- and upper-middle-class young people experimented with the
drug, attitudes changed. By the end of the 1970s, eleven states had de-
criminalized possession of the drug for personal use. Owning less than
an ounce for individual consumption could lead to little more than a fine.
The 1980s and 1990s have seen not only a return to criminalization in
some states but also a new movement for legalizing cannabis for medical
Debates related to marijuana prohibition claim to focus on moral and
pragmatic issues. Moral arguments in support of prohibition generally
portray the drug as unethical or corrupt. Pragmatic arguments in support
of prohibition rest on concerns about health consequences, use by youth,
and the transition to other illicit drugs with worse effects. Moralists
against prohibition assert that current laws violate rights guaranteed by
the Constitution, including freedom of religion, privacy, and property.
Pragmatic arguments against prohibition focus on the price of enforcing
the laws relative to the harm the drug actually causes.
Alternatives to the current laws remain numerous and varied. A few
prohibitionists assert that extreme penalties rigorously enforced would
decrease use dramatically, but the expense of such a program and the
associated potential for violations of civil rights make it unfeasible. Evi-
dence from countries with stiffer penalties, such as Singapore and Ma-
laysia, suggest that even these efforts would not eliminate the drug. Pro-
ponents of decriminalization report that minimizing penalties has saved
many areas considerable expense with little increase in consumption.
Nevertheless, decriminalizing the drug does little to combat the under-
ground market. These underground sales command large sums of un-
Law and Policy 245

taxed revenue and may expose users to drugs with markedly worse neg-
ative consequences.
Some proponents of legalization suggest innovative strategies that
could have all the benefits of decriminalization with the added advantage
of altering the underground market. Government programs that would
license marijuana users and limit the amount they may purchase could
provide tax revenue and avoid exposing users to other drugs. These strat-
egies would also save large sums currently devoted to law enforcement.
Yet recent attempts to change laws in this direction have met with con-
siderable resistance. After a long period of legal use and more than 60
years of changing legislation against the drug, future trends seem difficult
to predict. Given the moral and pragmatic arguments given by both sides,
it seems clear that this is one area where more research will not have as
much impact as changes in political climate.
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Treatment for Marijuana Problems

This chapter addresses ways to alleviate marijuana problems. Some of

the intricacies of treatment research appear first, followed by a review of
studies focused specifically on therapy for troubles that stem from smok-
ing too much cannabis. Suggestions for ways to improve therapy follow,
including descriptions of three promising treatments for substance abuse.
These treatments include cognitive-behavioral therapy, twelve-step fa-
cilitation, and motivational interviewing. This chapter is not a substitute
for substance abuse treatment but may serve as a guide to the approaches
available for limiting marijuana-induced harm.
The path from marijuana use to marijuana problems varies from
person to person (Newcomb & Earleywine, 1996); the path away from
these problems varies, too. Estimates suggest that 9% to 15% of can-
nabis users develop some problems with the drug (NIDA, 1991; Weller
& Halikas, 1980). Some folks quit without formal interventions; some
quit through treatment; and some never quit. Contrary to popular be-
lief, the majority of people who abuse drugs stop on their own. Most
decrease their use without the help of drugs, books, organizations, cli-
nicians, or coaches (Peele, 1998; Vaillant, 1983). They often report that
they quit in an effort to avoid problems. Some mention that family sup-
port, a new job, or a sense of accomplishment may have assisted their
Many abstinent people report a critical incident that inspired them to
quit. A cannabis smoker might stop after saying something embarrassing
while high, developing a bad cough, or getting arrested for possession.
Research suggests spontaneous quitters may not have more of these

248 Understanding Marijuana

events in their lives than people who keep using. The events do not have
to be particularly dramatic. Some users abandon cannabis after devel-
oping new hobbies or becoming parents. No clear set of circumstances
or incidents leads all people to reduce drug use. Many researchers assert
that spontaneous quitters were never addicted in the first place. Others
suggest that intensive study of spontaneous quitters can reveal a great
deal about the addictive process (Sobell, Sobell, Cunningham, & To-
neatto, 1993). In addition to those who quit on their own, some people
never quit. They may experience problems that are not particularly de-
bilitating, find a level of functioning that suits them, and continue using.
The number of these functional, problem marijuana users remains un-
In addition to those who quit on their own or never quit, some
people turn to professionals for help. These may be the people who
have a particularly difficult time quitting on their own. Therapies for the
addictions do not appear completely effective. Treatment studies reveal
that more than half of users of any drug who successfully quit eventu-
ally use again (Brown, 1993). Psychological treatments for other prob-
lems are more successful. For example, people with panic disorder
(Bruce, Spiegel, & Hegel, 1999), anxiety (Yonkers, Warshaw, Massion,
& Keller, 1996), and depression (Evans et al., 1992) show much better
responses to therapy. Drug treatment programs have considerable room
for progress. Perhaps they try to do too much for too many people.
Research on treatment may not reveal much about the way therapies
proceed outside the research settings. For example, most drug programs
must treat people with any sort of chemical dependence. Urban crack
abusers may find themselves with rural alcoholics in the same facility.
These people may experience different troubles that require markedly
different interventions. In contrast, some research studies concentrate on
participants experiencing problems with a single drug. This single-drug
approach may prove more effective for marijuana problems. Treatments
specifically designed for difficulties related to marijuana may attract
more problem smokers than programs designed for addictions in general
(Roffman & Barnhart, 1987). Perhaps problem marijuana users do not
see themselves as comparable to people experiencing troubles with
other drugs. Perhaps they are concerned that other participants addicted
to crack cocaine, heroin, or alcohol might not take problems related to
marijuana very seriously.
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 249

Research on Treatment for Cannabis Problems

One of the few empirical studies devoted exclusively to treatment for

marijuana problems helped over a one-third of the smokers eliminate
negative consequences completely, and 14% maintained abstinence for a
year. The study compared relapse prevention techniques to a social sup-
port group (Stephens, Roffman, & Simpson, 1994). Relapse prevention
techniques stem from the cognitive-behavioral model of treatment, and
social support may play a role in twelve-step approaches. The details of
these strategies appear at the end of this chapter. The researchers iden-
tified 212 people (161 men and 51 women) who were appropriate for
the study. Most were employed, educated, Caucasians in their early 30s.
On average, they had smoked marijuana for 15 years. They used on an
average of 81 days in the previous 90. Some smoked 4 or more times in
a day. They showed no difficulties with drugs other than cannabis. Their
concerns included trouble decreasing their use, negative feelings about
smoking marijuana, procrastination, decreased self-confidence, memory
loss, and withdrawal symptoms. Many also reported experiencing finan-
cial difficulties and complaints from their loved ones (Stephens, Roffman,
& Simpson, 1993). This sample clearly qualified as heavy users experi-
encing adverse effects.
The two treatments emphasized different aspects of cannabis use. The
relapse prevention treatment focused on identifying feelings, thoughts,
and situations that might increase the chance of smoking marijuana, and
planning alternative actions that did not include the drug. The social
support group concentrated on identifying meaningful others who could
assist in maintaining abstinence, particularly during difficult times. De-
spite these different emphases, the two treatments shared many factors.
The goal for both therapies was abstinence. Both used a group format.
Twelve to 15 participants met with two therapists for two hours per
session. Therapists scheduled 10 meetings in the first 3 months; partici-
pants attended an average of 7 or 8 of them. Therapists held two addi-
tional sessions 3 and 6 months after treatment ended. These booster ses-
sions reviewed the previous material. Researchers often schedule these
booster sessions in an effort to improve and assess long-term outcomes.
Participants who attended these final sessions provided urine samples
and answered written questions about marijuana use and problems. Urine
250 Understanding Marijuana

screens revealed that the written answers were very accurate. The clients
also answered questionnaires mailed to their homes at 1, 9, and 12
months after treatment. In addition, a friend or relative of each partici-
pant reported on his or her use. These collateral reports agreed with the
participant information very often, helping to confirm accuracy. Thus,
the clients provided multiple measures of marijuana use and problems at
1, 3, 6, 9, and 12 months after treatment ended.
Clients improved with treatment. The relapse prevention and social
support therapies were equally effective at minimizing marijuana prob-
lems. One difference between the two approaches did appear: the relapse
prevention group smoked marijuana fewer times per day than the social
support group. Otherwise, the groups were equal in their numbers of
problems and the number of days that they smoked. Over 60% of the
participants remained abstinent for 2 weeks after a specified quit date.
Nevertheless, only 14% actually maintained abstinence for the entire year
after treatment. Some participants eliminated problems, even though
they did not remain abstinent. People who reported no marijuana prob-
lems, and who cut the number of days they got high in half, were con-
sidered improved. Using these criteria, 36% of the sample appeared im-
proved one year after treatment, 31% had been abstinent or improved
for that entire year. Despite the decreases in marijuana consumption and
problems, the sample reported drinking alcohol more often. They also
experienced a few more alcohol problems after treatment. Perhaps some
turned to alcohol after limiting their cannabis use.
An important caveat about these results concerns participants who
dropped out. The researchers only described outcomes for the 167 peo-
ple who recorded their progress at all 5 of the follow-up points. We
cannot know the status of the other 45 users who did not complete these
measures. This level of attrition (21%) is typical of treatment studies.
These lost participants may have made as much progress as they wanted
and decided to stop their involvement in the study. Maybe they were
too busy to fill out questionnaires and pee in cups. Perhaps they made
little progress and quit treatment. One way to gain some insights into
the status of people who left the study requires comparing them to the
ones who remained. If these two groups did not differ prior to the study,
perhaps their success with treatment was also comparable.
In fact, the 45 people who did not complete all the assessments dif-
fered significantly from the other participants. They reported more mar-
ijuana problems initially and had longer histories of use. A longer, more
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 251

problematic involvement with cannabis apparently increases the likeli-

hood of missing follow-up assessments. Some might argue that these
people probably had worse outcomes than those who completed follow-
ups, given that they were experiencing more problems initially. Data
from this same research group suggest that those who did not complete
the study were younger, earned less money, and reported more psycho-
logical distress (Roffman, Klepsch, Wertz, Simpson, & Stephens, 1993).
Thus, the reported success rates for those who completed all the assess-
ments may overestimate the success of the treatment for the lost partic-
Interpretations of this treatment study depend on a frame of reference.
The idea that almost two-thirds of those in treatment could not eliminate
their marijuana problems and over 85% continued to use the drug might
seem unimpressive. These numbers look particularly discouraging in light
of the 45 people who did not complete the outcome measures. Never-
theless, these data do suggest that problem users are not doomed to a
lifetime of negative consequences. The sample obviously does not include
those who were able to quit on their own. (On the other hand, it also
does not include problem users with no desire to quit.) But for people
who seek treatment and remain in therapy, the 36% improvement rate
serves as our best estimate of the efficacy of these two approaches. These
results parallel those from studies of people dependent on alcohol, cig-
arettes, and heroin (Hunt, Barnett, & Branch, 1971). Given the success
rate of therapies for other addictions, both relapse prevention and social
support appear equally encouraging for decreasing problematic marijuana
use. In addition, these therapies only required a dozen sessions in a group
format, suggesting minimal cost. Perhaps simple, cost-effective improve-
ments might enhance the outcomes for these treatments.

Potential Improvements for Treatment of Cannabis Problems

Therapists and researchers have suggested several changes that might im-
prove treatments for marijuana problems. These include using individual
therapy, adding an inpatient stay in the hospital, increasing the number
of sessions, and providing medications to help abstinence. Data suggest
that some of these changes may provide more help than others. Many
drug programs have focused on individual rather than group treatment.
At first glance, the group format may seem less promising. Time spent
252 Understanding Marijuana

one-on-one with the mental health provider might provide extra atten-
tion, specific interventions, and a different therapeutic relationship.
Although no data address the issue of group versus individual treat-
ment for marijuana problems, a study of cocaine abusers actually found
some advantages for group treatment (Schmitz et al., 1997). This study
revealed fewer cocaine-related problems for participants in group therapy
compared to those in individual. Perhaps group treatments provide social
support that enhances outcome. Thus, individual sessions may not be
essential for improving therapy for marijuana problems.
Another popular approach to drug treatments includes inpatient, hos-
pital stays. Hospital patients may have less access to illicit drugs, im-
proving their chances of maintaining abstinence. Yet a review of many
studies suggests that staying in a hospital instead of using an outpatient
program may not prove worth the cost (Miller & Hester, 1986). Other
studies support inpatient treatment for a subset of drug abusers (Moos,
King, & Patterson, 1996). No data address the efficacy of hospital stays
for people experiencing difficulties from marijuana. Few problem users
of cannabis express much desire to enter the hospital for treatment. This
approach may offer little improvement in outcomes if no one is willing
to use it.
Longer treatments also have an intuitive appeal. More sessions might
give extra opportunity to learn skills and discuss problems. Increased
counseling has created better outcomes for many people with drug prob-
lems (Fiorentine & Anglin, 1997). Again, no data address marijuana trou-
bles directly, but studies of other drug problems may apply. An exami-
nation of a therapeutic community of drug abusers found a 6-month
program led to better results than a 1-month treatment (Bleiberg, Devlin,
Croan, & Briscoe, 1994). A study of over 2,000 drug users revealed
longer treatments could lead to less use of heroin and cocaine (Hser,
Grella, Chou, & Anglin, 1998). Longer attendance in an aftercare pro-
gram led to better outcomes for alcoholics, too (Trent, 1998). Yet long
treatments are clearly not essential. Some people decrease negative con-
sequences of drugs with brief interventions (Tucker, Donovan, & Marlatt,
1999). Perhaps longer treatments could improve outcomes for people
experiencing marijuana problems who do not respond to brief therapies.
People with more severe problems may need continued support to main-
tain abstinence.
Pharmacological interventions in combination with psychological
treatment also have many supporters. Although some argue that phar-
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 253

macological treatments for the addictions simply substitute one drug for
another (Cornish, McNicholas, & O’Brien, 1995), this approach is con-
sistent with the biopsychosocial and medical models of addiction. Med-
ications designed to treat substance abuse usually function in one of four
ways: (1) they can provide the drug in a less harmful way; (2) they can
react adversely when combined with the drug of abuse; (3) they can
lower the craving and euphoric drug effects; or (4) they can combat the
symptoms that may have initially inspired use of the abusable drug. Ap-
plications of each approach to marijuana problems have been limited so
Some pharmacological interventions provide small doses of a drug to
decrease craving and ease withdrawal. The nicotine replacement thera-
pies work this way. Nicotine gum, patches, and nasal sprays may help
cigarette smokers quit if combined with behavioral techniques (Fiore,
Smith, Jorenby, & Baker, 1994; Sutherland et al., 1992). This approach
has never been attempted in the treatment of marijuana problems. Al-
though alternative ways to administer THC exist, including orally ad-
ministered dronabinol and the marijuana suppository, replacement ther-
apies may have too high an abuse potential to treat negative
consequences related to cannabis use. This approach does not appear
popular in any treatment community.
Some medications cause an adverse reaction when combined with an
abusable drug, which may assist recovery. For example, disulfiram (An-
tabuse) makes people who drink alcohol feel ill, which may help alco-
holics avoid relapse (Adelman & Weiss, 1989). Silver acetate makes cig-
arette smoke produce a nasty, metallic taste, which may assist smoking
cessation (Hymowitz, Feuerman, Hollander, & Frances, 1993). Never-
theless, no one has identified a drug that would consistently make mar-
ijuana aversive. Thus, this approach may not improve outcomes for prob-
lem marijuana users.
Other medications may block the rewarding effects of abusable drugs
and help minimize craving. Naltrexone may decrease craving for opiates
and alcohol, as well as lower their euphoric effects if they are consumed.
Naltrexone has improved relapse rates for alcoholics (Volpicelli, Alter-
man, Hayashida, & O’Brien, 1992) and may help opiate addicts maintain
abstinence (Holloway, 1991). Methadone decreases opiate-induced eu-
phoria and craving and can enhance recovery from heroin abuse (Calla-
han, 1980). A medication that would block marijuana craving and its
euphoric effects may help minimize problems, but no one has identified
254 Understanding Marijuana

such a substance. A few substances block the CB1 receptor, but their
safety and utility in the treatment of cannabis abuse and dependence
remains unknown.
The medication strategies discussed above confront drug problems di-
rectly. Another approach concerns providing medication for drug users
who use marijuana to combat psychological problems. A medication that
alleviates these symptoms might minimize the need for marijuana. Thus,
medication could decrease marijuana consumption indirectly by elimi-
nating the state that may have inspired the cannabis use in the first place.
Some people may use marijuana in an attempt to combat symptoms of
mood disorders or other psychological troubles (Burton, 1621; Grinspoon
& Bakalar, 1997). Medications with fewer side effects and negative con-
sequences might help these people leave marijuana behind. Psychological
treatments that focus on these symptoms might also help people reduce
their marijuana smoking. For example, cognitive-behavioral treatments
can decrease depressive symptoms and eliminate cannabis that may have
been used as an antidepressant.
Thus, outpatient relapse prevention and social support remain the best
(and only) formally investigated therapies for marijuana problems. Be-
cause the success rates have been less than perfect, the therapies may
improve with a few alterations. Individual treatment and hospital stays
are probably not essential. Longer treatments may increase success rates.
Pharmacological interventions for coexisting psychological problems like
depression or anxiety might also help treatment for marijuana problems.
These data and studies of treatments for alcohol problems also suggest
that three psychological treatment options appear promising. Descrip-
tions of each appear in more detail next.

Promising Psychological Treatments for Marijuana Problems

At least three different approaches have shown considerable promise in

minimizing the negative consequences of drugs. These include cognitive-
behavioral therapy, twelve-step facilitation, and motivational interview-
ing. Cognitive-behavioral treatment focuses on changing the thoughts
and situations that previously led to drug use. The relapse prevention
treatment in the study described earlier derives from cognitive-behavioral
theory. Twelve-step facilitation employs specific techniques to help peo-
ple make good use of twelve-step treatment. These programs rely on
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 255

social support as one aspect of treatment, which may parallel the social
support group in the study above. Motivational interviewing uses assess-
ments and interpersonal interactions to enhance decisions to alter prob-
lem behaviors.
No single study of marijuana problems has compared the three ap-
proaches. Each treatment has its strengths. An enormous project that
contrasted the outcome of these three treatments for alcohol-dependent
people found that all three were comparably effective (Project MATCH,
1998). The treatments share several factors, which may help explain their
similar outcomes. All emphasize the client’s responsibility for change. All
treat the problem drug use as a phenomenon independent of the indi-
vidual’s value as a person. All three stress regular attendance and active
participation in treatment.
Descriptions of these therapies do not reveal all their nuances. Any
attempt to reduce a treatment to a few pages of text invariably fails.
Even the briefest interventions for substance abuse defy simple expla-
nations. Academic descriptions of psychotherapy often miss its potential
for intimate and curative interactions. Stereotypical depictions of the pro-
cess often emphasize education, empathy, encouragement, and occa-
sional insights. Ideally, these combine to alter actions, diminish problems,
and increase happiness. The techniques and rationales of each of these
treatments only provide a limited picture of the way they actually pro-
Although treatments differ in their methods and strategies, most re-
quire a meaningful relationship with a therapist. Therapists often believe
techniques create change, but the relationship may serve as an equally
important contributor (Strupp, 1989). The idea that the relationship is
more important than specific strategies may help explain some of the
similar outcomes created by different therapies (Wampold et al., 1997).
Perhaps disparate treatments create comparable results because all rely
on a therapeutic relationship. Manualized treatments, which clearly de-
lineate specific material for each session, still lead to different outcomes
with different therapists. The therapeutic relationship may account for
these differences. Yet this relationship does not mimic the friendship and
mentoring common outside of therapy. Even treatments for relatively
simple problems, like bedwetting or a fear of dogs, require considerable
skill on the clinician’s part. Data clearly support psychotherapy’s efficacy,
but the mechanisms that lead to success remain unclear. Therapy works;
no one knows exactly why (Dawes, 1994). The descriptions below de-
256 Understanding Marijuana

scribe the rationales for each therapy, but the treatments may not suc-
ceed for the reasons posited. All may depend, at least in part, on the
therapeutic relationship.

Cognitive-behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy for substance abuse focuses on altering en-

vironments, thoughts, and actions associated with drugs. Different as-
pects of people’s environments may trigger undesired, problematic con-
sumption. These triggers include external and internal factors. External
factors include any person, location, or object associated with drugs. A
roach clip, rock song, or ashtray might easily trigger a desire for a drug.
Internal factors include thoughts and feelings linked directly or indirectly
to the drug. Some triggers are direct and some are indirect. Direct factors
are close to drug use, like craving and urges. Indirect factors also increase
the chance of drug use, but their import is less obvious. These include
frustration, anger, or even delight. Cognitive-behavioral therapy suggests
that users learn to take drugs in reaction to these triggers, much the way
people learn any other behavior. Therefore, they can learn to engage in
new behaviors instead of problematic drug use by altering environments,
thoughts, and actions.
The idea that drug consumption is a learned behavior does not fit some
people’s experience. Many regular users report that drug consumption
occurs automatically, without much thought or effort. In fact, triggers
often occur before drug consumption, even when users remain unaware
of them. Through consistent effort, client and therapist can work to-
gether to identify environmental factors that lead to drug use. Then the
client can learn to engage in new behaviors in reaction to these factors.
Detailed assessments of when an individual used drugs in the past can
help reveal times that may prove particularly difficult in the future. This
information serves as a first step toward minimizing the negative conse-
quences associated with consumption (Beck, Wright, Newman, & Liese,
The situations that precede using drugs often appear bafflingly diverse.
For example, an assessment might reveal dramatic cannabis consumption
prior to a party, after conflict at work, and every Saturday. The com-
monalities among these situations may not look obvious. The cognitive-
behavioral model suggests that thoughts about the situations may con-
tribute more to using drugs than the circumstances themselves. Thus,
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 257

each environment may elicit specific thoughts—often something like

“marijuana is the only way to enhance this experience.” These thoughts
may prove easier to alter than the situations, so they become an essential
focus of cognitive treatment.
The cognitive-behavioral model suggests that people carry a set of
underlying beliefs with them. Certain situations activate these beliefs,
eliciting specific thoughts, which often lead to action. For example, a
problem marijuana user might believe that the drug provides the only
way to relax. These users may interpret a situation as tense. The inter-
pretation might activate the belief that they need marijuana to relax. This
belief would likely lead to thoughts of using, which might inspire all the
actions required to get high. In cognitive therapy, a client would learn to
challenge beliefs in an effort to minimize drug use. Thus, the client may
develop the skills to see situations as not so stressful and would certainly
alter the belief that using drugs is the only great way to relax (Beck et
al., 1993). Instead of smoking marijuana, one might listen to music, med-
itate, or exercise.
Therapists have developed many techniques for altering these beliefs.
Most require identifying the underlying belief, and then looking for evi-
dence to support or dispute it. One common strategy that cognitive-
behavioral therapists employ includes Socratic questioning. Socratic
questioning takes its name from Plato’s descriptions of interactions be-
tween the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and his students (Plato,
1999). Socrates rarely wasted time with didactic lectures. Instead, he
guided students through a series of questions so that they might arrive
at their own answers. Adept therapists might employ a comparable style
of inquiry. Instead of merely providing information, this strategy teaches
a process for discovery. Eventually, clients can learn to ask these sorts of
questions of themselves so they can maintain sobriety without the ther-
This process also elicits the thoughts and feelings most important to
the client. For example, those who believe marijuana provides the only
way to relax might respond particularly well to questions about alter-
native ways to unwind. Questions about restful recreation in general may
prove helpful. Queries about favorite activities from before the clients
began using marijuana might also work effectively. As clients generate
their own list of preferred ways to soothe themselves without drugs, the
belief that marijuana is the sole source of relaxation weakens. Note that
clients would find their own examples more compelling than any list of
258 Understanding Marijuana

calming circumstances the therapist might generate. This approach also

respects the client’s own ability to present evidence to alter beliefs (Ov-
erholser, 1987). Changing the thoughts about situations that previously
led to drug use can help decrease problematic drug consumption.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy relies on other techniques too numerous
to list here, but one key set of strategies concerns relapse prevention.
Many people can quit using for a brief period but cannot maintain ab-
stinence. Thus, many cognitive-behavioral techniques focus not only on
quitting but also on avoiding the return to drugs. Thoughts and beliefs
remain important in preventing relapse, given their relevance to a phe-
nomenon known as the abstinence violation effect. The abstinence vio-
lation effect concerns the way people cope with backsliding once they
have committed to altering their drug consumption.
Most people who decide to eliminate or decrease their use subse-
quently make mistakes. They use the drug when they intended to quit
or use more than their established limit. The abstinence violation effect
occurs when a small, thoughtless toke of a joint turns into a full weekend
binge. It is as if people say “Well, I wrecked my abstinence, so I might
as well use all that I can.” Minimizing the impact of small slips is essential
to relapse prevention. Although many believe that the pharmacology of
the drug makes a single dose inevitably turn into a relapse, changes in
thinking can actually prevent these slips from creating troubles. The in-
terpretation of the slip appears to contribute more to relapse than the
actual occurrence of the slip itself (Marlatt & Gordon, 1985).
No one doubts that intoxicated people can make poor decisions about
continued drug use, and that the pharmacological effects of the drug
certainly contribute to these decisions. Nevertheless, many who relapse
report abstinence violation effects that occurred at extremely low doses
of their drug of choice. Often a single sip of liquor or smell of marijuana
led to decisions to binge. Pharmacology may not play a particularly strong
role in these relapses. A crafty study by Marlatt, Demming, and Reid
(1973) revealed that alcoholics who drank alcohol but did not know it
did not show the abstinence violation effect. They did not continue
drinking after the initial dose. In contrast, alcoholics given a placebo that
they thought was alcohol did show the abstinence violation effect. They
consumed considerably more alcohol after the placebo. Obviously,
thoughts play an important role in relapse prevention.
A study like this one giving marijuana or a placebo to problem mari-
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 259

juana users has never been performed, in part because of ethical consid-
erations. Yet at least one study of marijuana users in treatment supports
the idea that interpretations of slips alter the chances of relapse. Seventy-
five people from an abstinence-oriented treatment program participated.
All had smoked marijuana after their designated quit dates. They com-
pleted questionnaires concerning their thoughts about these incidents of
use. Three types of attributions appeared with the largest relapses: in-
ternal, stable, and global ones. Those people who thought that their mis-
taken use stemmed from their own internal lack of ability often contin-
ued using. If they thought lapses arose from consistent, stable qualities
that applied in many settings, use also increased.
A few examples can help illustrate these different kinds of attribution.
Suppose someone who had quit smoking marijuana attributed a lapse to
a weak character. Weak character, if it exists at all, supposedly describes
an internal quality about the person. Weak character is stable—it stays
with the person in any situation. Thus, people who attribute a slip to an
internal, stable, and global factor like weak character will likely relapse.
In contrast, those who attributed their slips to external, unstable, specific
circumstances faired better. If they thought the source of their lapses
varied in an unstable way and did not apply to many settings, relapse
proved less likely. For example, suppose someone attributed a lapse to
an inability to refuse marijuana when it was offered. Refusing drugs is a
skill that people can learn and that improves with practice. The absence
of the skill probably relates to external circumstances—the lack of an
opportunity to learn. The decreased skill remains unstable; it is possible
to alter and improve it. In addition, people may not be offered drugs in
every setting they encounter. This external, unstable, specific attribution
is less likely to lead to relapse (Stephens, Curtin, Simpson, & Roffman,
Cognitive-behavioral therapy relies on the principles of learning the-
ory to treat substance abuse problems. Clients can treat problem drug
use as if it were identical to other learned behaviors. The treatment may
work by altering beliefs about drug use and its consequences. It also
focuses on the prevention of relapse by identifying situations that may
increase the risk of drug use and then teaching alternative ways to act
under those conditions. Relatively brief versions of the treatment have
proven helpful for marijuana users in an empirical study, with about one-
third of problem users eliminating drug-related problems. This treatment
260 Understanding Marijuana

approach is not the only one with empirical support, however. Social
support has proven equally successful in treating marijuana problems and
may play a role in twelve-step programs.

Twelve-step Facilitation

This brief intervention helps individuals successfully join the twelve-step

fellowship appropriate for their addictive behaviors. The fellowship con-
sists of the recovering addicts who participate in the meetings and activ-
ities of the group. Unlike twelve-step programs, twelve-step facilitation
is a form of psychotherapy. Twelve-step programs are not psychotherapy,
since they employ no formal diagnoses or assessments. Instead, they use
the 12 steps to solve problems, which include important processes like
admitting powerlessness over the drug, developing a belief in something
greater than oneself, taking a moral inventory of one’s actions, making
amends for one’s wrongs, and carrying the message of recovery to other
problem users.
The programs serve as opportunities to adopt a new, sober lifestyle
that includes an active involvement in the fellowship. In this way, twelve-
step approaches have many advantages over psychotherapy. Unlike most
individual therapists, the fellowships provide free services in almost every
major city in the world. They furnish a complete network of members,
hot lines for telephone support, and the opportunity to serve the com-
munity. They also have a long tradition with many members reporting
years of successful sobriety. These advantages inspired the development
of twelve-step facilitation, which helps people tackle the initial tasks as-
sociated with joining the program (Nowinski & Baker, 1992).
Many mental health professionals recommend twelve-step meetings
to clients with drug problems, but a simple suggestion is rarely enough
to help someone connect to the fellowship. Twelve-step facilitation
serves as a more formal way to help ensure a productive experience in
the program. Data support twelve-step facilitation as an effective strategy
for minimizing alcohol problems (Project MATCH, 1998). It would
likely generalize to those experiencing negative consequences from mar-
In this treatment, each client meets regularly with a twelve-step fa-
cilitator who discusses the program, provides guidance about the steps,
encourages active participation, and monitors progress. The facilitator is
not a formal part of twelve-step programs. Twelve-step work does not
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 261

require a coach, counselor, or therapist of any kind outside of the fellow-

ship. But discussions with the facilitator may help decrease the chances
of dropping out and may make the transition from new member to active
member easier.
Membership in the fellowship enhances outcomes for alcoholics and
likely helps problem users of cannabis (Morganstern, Labouvier, Mc-
Crady, Kahler, & Frey, 1997). Alcoholics Anonymous and twelve-step
programs designed for drugs other than alcohol are quite similar. Al-
though few formal studies address success rates, members of Narcotics
Anonymous and Marijuana Anonymous report successful abstinence
from marijuana. Mental health professionals recommend twelve-step
treatment for people experiencing marijuana problems, suggesting con-
siderable confidence in the program (Miller, Gold, & Pottash, 1989).
The success of social support treatment implies that the supportive
aspects of Marijuana Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous would help
problem users. Perhaps generalizing from the studies of Alcoholics Anon-
ymous is appropriate. All these programs rely on the 12 steps and the
disease model. The central topics of the programs remain comparable,
emphasizing spirituality, acceptance, and surrender. All the programs
highlight the role of sponsors, peers, prayer, and regular attendance at
meetings. Meetings of the groups follow similar formats. The correspond-
ing processes within these groups suggest that twelve-step facilitation
might work comparably regardless of which group a client chooses to
join (Nowinski, 1996). Thus, twelve-step facilitation may show promise
for problem marijuana users.

The Format of Facilitation

Just as no therapy works the same way twice, no two experiences in

twelve-step programs are identical. Thus, twelve-step facilitation will
function a little differently with each person. Nevertheless, the treatment
focuses on common, core topics. These include an introduction to the
program, acceptance, surrender, and getting active in the fellowship. Ad-
ditional sessions can highlight elective topics. These include enabling—
the role of others in facilitating drug consumption, and inventories—
candid and thorough examinations of ethical transgressions. Conjoint ses-
sions, where the therapist meets with both the problem user and mean-
ingful people in his or her life, are also possible. These sessions often
concentrate on enabling, too. The therapists need not be members of
262 Understanding Marijuana

twelve-step programs, but they must have a familiarity with various

meetings, an understanding of the disease model, and an appreciation for
the role of spirituality in recovery. An extensive network of contacts with
individuals who are active in the fellowship would also serve as an asset.
The initial session of twelve-step facilitation focuses on recommending
a connection with the fellowship. If assessment reveals appropriate drug
problems, the therapist requests regular attendance at treatment sessions
and twelve-step meetings. In the initial stages of recovery, daily atten-
dance at meetings serves as the goal. Programs traditionally suggest 90
meetings in the first 90 days of membership. The therapist also asks the
client to keep a journal for monitoring attendance and reactions to these
meetings. Readings of relevant publications related to the twelve-step
group enhance treatment, too. Marijuana Anonymous publishes “Life
with Hope” (1995), which details the steps and traditions of the program.
Narcotics Anonymous publishes “Narcotics Anonymous” (1988), which
describes comparable information about the steps and traditions. Sub-
sequent sessions focus on reviews of the journal and readings, as well as
assessments of any drug use or urges to use. The therapist offers praise
for sober days, handling urges, and attendance at meetings. Treatment
then turns to two central issues in twelve-step recovery: acceptance and
Acceptance concerns the tranquil understanding of personal limita-
tions. It relates strongly to the first step of the program, admitting pow-
erlessness over the drug. Some problem drug users report acceptance as
a single, categorical shift in their thinking. Most experience a gradual
change. The opposite of acceptance is denial—a resistance to the idea of
powerlessness. Denial might include any thought that controlled drug
use without problems remains an option. It serves as a natural reaction
to any thought of personal limitation. Few people long to admit that
controlled use of a substance remains impossible, particularly if they
know others who claim to use drugs with impunity.
Frank discussions of the link between drug use and life’s problems can
help combat denial. Initially, users may misattribute problems that likely
arose from drug use to other factors. As problem users grow more candid
about how drugs have made their lives unmanageable, accepting pow-
erlessness and personal limitations may grow easier. For example, people
who smoke pot daily and experience a great deal of fatigue may attribute
their exhaustion to trouble sleeping. After a few weeks in the program
they may notice more energy, realize that daily smoking had drained their
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 263

strength, and be more willing to accept that they cannot function opti-
mally with the drug in their lives.
The acceptance of powerlessness over the drug leads to the difficult
realization that one cannot function productively alone. This acceptance
lays the groundwork for surrender. The realization of powerlessness es-
sentially leads to an understanding that only something outside of one’s
self can provide appropriate support for sobriety. Essentially, acceptance
of limitations leads to a request for help. Surrender includes a tranquil
understanding of the importance of this outside support and sets the
stage for the idea of a higher power. This idea remains one of the more
novel and controversial aspects of twelve-step work.
The higher power is unique to these twelve-step programs; no other
approach to substance abuse treatment relies on it. It creates considerable
resistance in some, despite the twelve-step program’s pluralistic ap-
proach. References to the higher power always emphasize the individ-
ual’s personal understanding. There is no recommended higher power.
Some members view the fellowship as their higher power; some rely on
the deities they grew up learning about in organized religion. Others view
love or knowledge as something separate from themselves that can assist
them (Wallace, 1996). The signs of surrender generally include an im-
proved ability to accept outside help. This ability often manifests in in-
creased involvement with the fellowship.
Later sessions in twelve-step facilitation focus on increasing involve-
ment with the fellowship. Getting active requires consistent attempts to
understand the program. Regular attendance and participation at meet-
ings serve as a first step toward increased activity. Attendance and par-
ticipation at different types of meetings serve as signs of commitment to
a sober lifestyle. In the initial stages of recovery, people often report
mixed feelings about their attendance. No two twelve-step meetings are
identical. Clients who dislike meetings in one location can attend those
in another. Some meetings focus on the steps, the experience of partic-
ular speakers, or the open comments of any member willing to talk.
Meetings designed for homogeneous groups also exist. For example, in-
terested clients may find gatherings that include only men, women, La-
tinos, or members of the gay community.
The facilitator and client can discuss reactions to the meetings, which
often reveal a great deal about attitudes and beliefs related to drugs and
treatment. Impressions of meetings often improve with increased partic-
ipation. Simple attendance serves as a great start, but speaking up at
264 Understanding Marijuana

meetings is essential to increased participation. Clients can discuss their

concerns about speaking with the facilitator and even role play making
Connecting to a sponsor and twelve-step peers also enhances involve-
ment. A sponsor, someone with more experience who is willing to help
take the message of the program to new members, can answer questions
and provide advice about building a meaningful life without drugs. Other
members of the program can serve as peers in the recovery process, per-
haps providing a supportive, interested phone call or a ride to a meeting.
These connections help form a new social support network committed
to a different lifestyle. Clients initially may feel reluctant to ask for phone
numbers, much less sponsorship. These actions may require a genuine
acknowledgment of the need for outside connections. The therapist may
suggest that the client talk with many members after meetings, gradually
growing more familiar with more people, and then requesting phone
numbers and sponsorship as comfort increases. Role plays may help in
these situations, too.
Reading about the program also helps increase understanding and in-
volvement. Numerous books and pamphlets in the twelve-step literature
address complex topics like acceptance, surrender, and powerlessness.
The readings also reveal the stories of many individuals who experienced
negative consequences from drugs and turned to the fellowship for help.
These stories often move reader’s emotions, enhancing a sense of con-
nection to other problem users. Candid discussions of these readings with
the facilitator and members of the fellowship can increase this sense of
connection. This process can help problem users make the transition
from an intellectual comprehension of key concepts of the program to a
more thorough, experiential understanding. The combination of all these
ideas and techniques can lead to a lifelong commitment to a new way of
living, providing social support, spirituality, and a strategy for ending the
negative consequences of drug use (Nowinski & Baker, 1992).

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing relies on brief interactions with a therapist to

help clients decrease problems. The treatment enhances motivation be-
fore attempting any changes in behavior. Therapists adopt this approach
because in the absence of a client’s motivation, any efforts to teach tech-
niques for limiting drug use simply waste time. Once a client’s motivation
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 265

has increased, strategies for eliminating drug problems have a better

chance of success. Motivational interviewing focuses on identifying the
client’s own reasons to quit. Once these reasons help increase desire,
clients often develop their own strategies for eliminating problem drug
use. Many people stop using drugs on their own; motivational interview-
ing essentially enhances the chances that a client will join this group. The
social interaction with the therapist may highlight the negative conse-
quences of drug use, leading people to change their own lives.
Motivational interviewing relies on a couple of general principles to
help clients decrease marijuana problems. First, the therapist behaves in
ways that increase the likelihood of change, such as listening attentively
without judgment or blame. Second, the therapist employs the stages of
change model. This model provides a view of change as a process that
requires different interventions for different stages of the client’s willing-
ness to act. The general behaviors most likely to induce change involve
empathy, nonpossessive warmth, and genuineness. Carl Rogers originally
emphasized these attributes in the treatment he invented, client-centered
therapy (Rogers, 1950). These therapist actions appear commonly in suc-
cessful treatments. The presence of these behaviors in many treatments
may serve as a good explanation for why different therapies produce
comparable results (Wampold et al., 1997).
Although everyone has an implicit feel for empathy, nonpossessive
warmth, and genuineness, these qualities prove difficult to define in the
abstract. Empathy concerns the ability to identify with another person’s
feelings. Empathic reactions clearly indicate that the therapist under-
stands the client’s view of situations. This understanding and empathy
have great importance in the treatment of substance abuse. Therapists
may have never experienced each client’s situation exactly, but they are
certainly familiar with frustration, disappointment, sadness, and the range
of emotions that accompany change. Expressions of this empathy en-
hance the relationship between client and therapist. This sharing of feel-
ing may increase the client’s trust, encouraging candid disclosures. Sorting
through the ambivalent and conflicted feelings associated with drug prob-
lems may help clients make clear decisions about decreasing the negative
consequences of their use.
Nonpossessive warmth refers to a therapist’s interactive style. Warmth
suggests a generally good-natured approach to therapy and a sincere ap-
preciation of the client’s intricacies and uniqueness. The nonpossessive
aspect implies that the therapist does not withdraw, cajole, or manipu-
266 Understanding Marijuana

late. The warmth does not disappear and reappear with changes in be-
havior. Thus, clients need not fear a bad reaction if they report emotions
or behaviors they consider negative. The therapist’s style should not
change if the client grows upset, reports urges, or uses drugs. Demon-
strations of warmth vary among therapists as they do among other peo-
ple. Nevertheless, a sincere smile, an attentive nod, and considerate lis-
tening invariably enhance interactions and reveal warmth.
Genuineness appears in authentic, trustworthy, realistic behavior. Cli-
ents rely on sincere reactions that are free from pretense or affectation.
A therapist who seems natural creates a more comfortable atmosphere
than one who appears scripted, stilted, or phony. Therapists who show
genuineness have body language, eye contact, and facial expressions that
correspond to their words. Essentially, the human interaction should feel
more important than following a treatment protocol, as this quality en-
hances rapport. Clients of therapists who show genuine interactions re-
port feeling that they are getting to know the therapist, in the sense that
they relate to each other rather than simply exchange information. Al-
though no one can point to specific actions out of context and label them
genuine or not, people easily identify therapists who seem consistent,
true to themselves, and real (Miller & Rollnick, 1991).

The Stages of Change Model

This empathy, warmth, and genuineness lay the foundation for any pro-
ductive, therapeutic interaction. Many therapies rely on these aspects of
the relationship to help support growth. Motivational interviewing com-
bines these qualities with the stages of change model to help inspire a
shift away from problem drug use. The stages of change model describes
particular steps that individuals appear to take any time they alter a prob-
lem behavior (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983). Researchers identified
these steps by interviewing people who quit smoking on their own. The
investigators proposed six stages common to the process: precontempla-
tion, contemplation, determination, action, maintenance, and relapse
(Prochaska, Norcross, & DiClemente, 1994).
Precontemplation describes the period before individuals consider al-
tering their behavior. The idea of precontemplation as a stage of change
may serve as one of the most novel aspects of this model. Marijuana
users in precontemplation have never considered changing their con-
sumption. An adept therapist would not waste time attempting to teach
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 267

these people how to quit using; they would likely lack motivation to
learn these skills. Instead, the therapist would begin with assessment. A
report on the amount and frequency of marijuana use would serve as a
good start. The therapist would also want to ask about any associated
consequences, including negative emotions, fatigue, uncomfortable inter-
personal interactions, or any other negative consequences the smoker
might experience. This assessment can often make the connections be-
tween use and consequences more salient. If these connections lead in-
dividuals to consider change in any way, they have entered the contem-
plation stage.
Contemplation includes the weighing of the pros and cons of altering
actions or continuing the same behavior. The motivational interviewer
would allow the marijuana smokers to candidly report all the positive
experiences they attributed to drug use, including any beliefs about en-
hanced sexual interactions, enjoyment, slowing of time, or connections
to the counterculture. Then the interviewer might ask smokers to high-
light negative consequences. Initial assessments of pros and cons often
reveal strong desires to continue using, as well as equally strong desires
to stop. This situation may reflect the ambivalence people feel about
altering their consumption of marijuana. Ambivalence serves as a com-
mon and important component of contemplation. Other approaches to
treatment may see this ambivalence as denial. The stages of change model
emphasizes ambivalence as an inherent part of change. During further
discussion, the therapist respectfully reflects the marijuana users’s con-
cerns back to them, emphasizing the negative consequences that they
generated earlier. This process often leads problem users to a decision to
change. A firm decision to change qualifies as a step toward determina-
Determination begins with a clearly stated desire to alter actions. This
stage serves as the appropriate time for a marijuana user to formulate a
plan for limiting consumption. Note that any attempts to devise a strat-
egy for change before the determination stage would essentially waste
effort. Motivation must increase before a plan can succeed. The plan
often stems from brainstorming between the interviewer and the smoker
and may include any options that look promising. For example, the strat-
egy for change may rely on techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy
like altering beliefs and preventing relapse. In addition, the smoker may
decide that membership in a twelve-step program sounds appropriate.
Once clients regularly alter old behaviors in favor of new ones, they
268 Understanding Marijuana

have entered the action stage. They no longer merely consider change;
they actually do it. This stage proves particularly informative. The gen-
uine experience of new habits and actions can reveal valuable information
unanticipated during contemplation and determination. Clients may find
some situations easier than they expected. Other aspects of abstinence
or controlled use may prove unexpectedly difficult. The motivational
interviewers will now offer reassurance about the process becoming less
difficult with practice. They will help clients solve problems related to
use. They will listen attentively to detailed descriptions of difficulties and
proud retellings of each resisted temptation.
After a steady period of action, clients may report increased confi-
dence in their skills. This sense of efficacy, an optimism in one’s own
ability to continue the new behaviors, serves as a hallmark of the main-
tenance stage. Self-efficacy and sustained change are the keys to main-
tenance. Client and therapist will work together now to prevent relapse.
They will identify situations that put the smoker at high risk for relapse
and plan ways to avoid problematic use in these circumstances. For ex-
ample, clients may decide to avoid parties where drugs are present. They
may role play refusing drugs if they are offered. They may practice re-
laxation techniques if tension often preceded their drug use. They may
call a hot line or a friend in times of temptation. Note that these tech-
niques for preventing relapse are consistent with twelve-step and
cognitive-behavioral approaches. Perhaps this overlap contributes to the
comparable results of these different programs.
Occasional backsliding occurs in many efforts to alter behavior. Orig-
inal studies of people who quit smoking cigarettes reveal that they rarely
remain abstinent on their first try (Prochaska et al., 1994). They quit,
relapse, and quit again. The stages of change model considers lapses and
relapses as another category of change. This approach may help normal-
ize the occasional slip. Considering lapses as a part of the change process
may decrease the chances of an abstinence violation effect, transforming
a slip into a full-blown relapse. The key to the lapse stage parallels the
key to the maintenance stage: preventing relapse. Lapses require imme-
diate action. Lapsing smokers can prevent relapse by rapidly exiting the
situation and removing the chance of continued use.
Many who lapse berate themselves, but their time and energy may be
better spent identifying the precursors to the drug use. A frank exami-
nation may reveal a new high-risk situation, providing the opportunity
to formulate a plan for how to handle this predicament in the future.
Treatment for Marijuana Problems 269

For example, a former cannabis smoker may find himself lighting up after
a fight with a family member. This situation may not be one that he had
identified as high risk before. Now he knows that he needs to plan new
ways to deal with conflict. He can turn this lapse into a learning expe-
rience to prevent later use. Thus, lapses remain a part of the change
process; planning for them may minimize problems. By combining good
therapeutic skills in general and targeted interventions for each stage of
change, a motivational interviewer can help problem drug users through
many steps toward minimizing problem drug use.


People who experience negative consequences from marijuana have a

number of imperfect but promising alternatives for eliminating problems.
Some may alter their consumption of the drug on their own. Those who
choose to enter treatment have a few options. One study of twelve-
session group treatments reveals that approximately one-third of the par-
ticipants could eliminate marijuana problems, and 14% remained absti-
nent from the drug for a year. Data from studies of other drugs of abuse
suggest that longer treatments may improve the outcomes of therapy.
Pharmacological and psychological treatments that address any coexisting
disorders, such as anxiety or depression, might also help limit marijuana-
related harm. Three promising substance abuse therapies may also work
well with marijuana problems: cognitive-behavioral therapy, twelve-step
facilitation, and motivational interviewing. Although no treatment is per-
fect, with considerable effort and hard work, motivated people can elim-
inate their use of this drug and minimize its negative effects.
This page intentionally left blank
Final Thoughts

A great deal of the available information on marijuana appears in this

book. But the marijuana literature is extensive. It does not lend itself to
easy summaries or interpretations. As mentioned in the preface, any at-
tempt to explain this research may say more about the explainer than
the explained. People who claim to be rational often gather information
before forming opinions and making decisions. Others form opinions,
make decisions, and then go in search of reasons afterward. A selective
reading of this research can buttress nearly any argument for or against
the drug. A careful reading, however, reveals several consistent themes.
A few points about marijuana remain unarguable. The plant is at least
10,000 years old. Its medicinal applications began at least 4,500 years
ago. Recreational use has also been around for thousands of years. Can-
nabis is the most popular illicit drug in the world. Hundreds of millions
of people have tried it. Only a small fraction of them develop problems
with other illicit drugs. Less than one-tenth of the people who ever try
marijuana end up using it regularly. Fewer still develop troubles with it.
Some fix the problems on their own. Many respond well to therapy.
Current treatments are promising, but not perfect.
A few facts about marijuana intoxication also seem clear. The expe-
rience is difficult to depict and varies dramatically from person to person
and across situations. Some people feel more relaxed, happy, and alive.
Others feel paranoid and anxious. After smoking marijuana, people ex-
perience time, space, and emotions differently. They eat more and crave
sweets. Intoxicated people do not learn new material well. They cannot
solve complex problems quickly, and their brain waves change. They can

272 Understanding Marijuana

drive a car as well as the unintoxicated, but these consistent results are
so counterintuitive that most people find them unbelievable. Individuals
are no more aggressive after smoking marijuana. Intoxication usually last
a couple of hours, depending upon dosage. After it ends, there is little
hangover or residual effect.
Several points about chronic use are also evident. After years of daily
smoking, people do not show any changes in brain structure, unless they
started using the drug before adulthood. They also rarely show deficits
on standard measures of intelligence, thinking, or ability. Yet sensitive
tests show changes in brain function. Chronic users can perform more
poorly on complex, difficult tasks that require fast reactions and focused
attention. The practical implications of these findings continue to gen-
erate debate. Studies of chronic users have yet to reveal dramatic health
problems, but their lungs show changes that suggest an increased risk for
cancer. Chronic users do not show a consistent, identifiable, amotiva-
tional syndrome. Yet people who are high all the time probably do not
get a great deal of work done. Compared to alcohol, cigarettes, and over-
the-counter medications, occasional marijuana use causes little harm.
The future for cannabis holds many possibilities. Research on the can-
nabinoids and their receptors will undoubtedly continue to tell more
about the human mind and body. This work could reveal additional in-
formation about the brain and immune system. Further work can test
the efficacy of marijuana and the cannabinoids as medical treatments.
Data on the long-term health effects of the drug could address many
unanswered questions, particularly those concerning the lung and brain.
Techniques may evolve to limit the drug’s negative consequences, like
recent efforts to develop the vaporizer to reduce noxious components of
smoke. Treatments for problem users could improve. In addition, laws
related to the drug may change.
Cannabis became essentially illegal in the United States in 1937. De-
spite over 60 years of prohibition, more people have used the drug than
ever before. Police arrest over half a million Americans each year for
crimes related to marijuana. Government spends billions annually on
marijuana control. Several authors suggest that alternative policies may
prove cheaper, send fewer people to jail, and maintain respect for the
law. After reviewing this literature, readers may agree. These plans in-
clude legalization, decriminalization, and licensing users. The experiences
of other countries suggest little change in levels of drug problems after
decriminalization, but many people feel that these experiences would
Final Thoughts 273

not apply in the United States. Nearly a dozen states have decriminalized
the drug at one time or another with little impact on use. Federal pro-
hibition remained, however, which may have kept rates of consumption
down. Yet most people who do not use the drug claim they have no
interest regardless of its legal status. Changes in legislation have the po-
tential to save money and increase respect for the law. They also might
have unforeseeable long-term consequences.
Cannabis policy reflects ideas about the drug. Many claim that the
laws have developed in an effort to limit harm. The extent of this harm
is an empirical question. Studies can establish the drug’s negative impact.
Relevant research appears throughout this book. The harm does not ap-
pear dramatic and may not justify current policy. Other contributors to
marijuana laws may not be so easy to address with research. Marijuana
problems are not the only reason for these policies. The laws may reveal
unspoken attitudes about the people who want to alter consciousness.
Some citizens may view people who want to change their consciousness
as evil or bad. These views may become the strongest determinants of
cannabis policy, particularly as news of the drug’s limited harm reaches
Each of us carries tacit assumptions about thoughts, awareness, and
an internal life. It is perfectly human to assume that consciousness should
be a certain way. We all have stereotypes about techniques designed to
alter thoughts and awareness. Mental activities for changing conscious-
ness can provide examples. Look at common attitudes about meditation,
frequent prayer, and hypnosis. People who do not engage in these prac-
tices may see those who do as decidedly deviant. Yet the activities remain
legal, perhaps because they cause no harm. Physical activities also change
consciousness. Skydiving, bungee jumping, and motorcycling remain le-
gal. In addition, they are not harmless. But more people have died from
these activities than ever overdosed on marijuana. Many see these actions
as deviant. Yet they do not bother people enough to inspire prohibition.
Something about the required effort and the attempts at safety seem to
keep these activities from becoming crimes. The fact that they do not
require external chemicals may help.
A few chemicals that alter consciousness also remain accepted. Caf-
feine, nicotine, and alcohol have established effects on thoughts and
moods. Their toxicity is much higher than marijuana’s. Yet as long as
they are consumed in a way that causes no harm to others, they remain
legal. Caffeine and nicotine do not produce the dramatic changes in con-
274 Understanding Marijuana

sciousness that seem to create concern. Alcohol alters thoughts more

dramatically, which may explain previous American attempts to prohibit
it. Yet alcohol’s familiarity, popularity, and potential to generate tax rev-
enues during an economic depression caused prohibition’s repeal. Alco-
hol consumption still has its detractors, and the drug creates plenty of
harm. Alcoholics certainly suffer from associated stigma. With appropri-
ate economic incentive, however, voters seemed willing to accept this
chemical way to alter consciousness. Those who use alcohol responsibly
seem to suffer little harm from the drug or from the legislation that
controls it. Citizens seem to trust adults enough to let them attempt to
use this drug in a way that will not cause problems. Can we extend this
trust to people who use marijuana?
From a combination of economic incentives and a sense of justice, the
world has slouched toward progress in appreciating diversity. People are
starting to respect each other a little more, regardless of age, ethnicity,
gender, occupation, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, or
education. Many argue that this greater respect benefits everyone. We
approach a point where people might tolerate others who think differ-
ently. Perhaps we could tolerate people who want to use marijuana with-
out causing harm to themselves or others.

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Abstinence, 23, 32, 36, 80, 84, 85, 87, American Medical Association, 168
89, 90, 143, 153, 154, 203 American Psychiatric Association, 37,
as a treatment goal, 243–268 38, 39, 41, 43, 44
during testing, 85, 89, 90 Amotivational syndrome, 197- 210,
Abuse, 29, 44, 45, 47, 61, 171, 172, 220, 272
181 Amphetamine, 10, 56, 137, 146, 217
Acetaminophen (Tylenol), 174 Amsterdam, 98
Acute effects, 68, 76, 80, 83, 85, 205 Analgesia, 174–179
Addiction, 32, 33, 35, 36, 44, 45, 47 Analgesics, 11, 14, 15, 27, 28, 174–
Adolescence, 149, 202 179, 192, 194
Africa, 4, 12, 25, 27, 168 Anandamide, 138–141, 183
Aggression, 19–24, 148, 187, 197, 214– Anorexia, 162, 182, 183, 186
221, 224, 231 Anslinger, H. J., 19, 24, 111, 216, 224
AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Antabuse (disulfiram), 253
Syndrome), 15, 16, 28, 35, 162, Antidepressants, 14, 254
168, 182–185, 195 Antiemetics, 15, 109, 180, 181, 182,
wasting syndrome, 28, 183 194
Alaska, 28, 229, 234 Antisocial, 147, 148, 217, 219
Alcohol, 102, 210, 213, 274 Antispasmodic, 14, 187
consumption, 23, 24, 53, 87, 132, Anxiety, 10, 18, 26, 38, 125, 140,
207, 217, 220 144, 145, 148, 171, 208, 248,
intoxication, 37, 213, 233, 242 254, 269
problems, 31, 148, 160, 165, 199, associated with marijuana
208, 250, 254, 260, 261, 274 intoxication, 115–119
Alcott, L. M., 111, 114 associated with medical marijuana,
Aldrich, M. R., 10, 11, 14, 129, 187, 191–194
238 cannabinoid treatment for, 176–179
American Indian Religious Freedom Arabian Nights (1,001 Nights), 26, 27,
Act, 228 111

320 Index

Arachidonyl glycerol (2-AG), 121, Canada, 28, 29

138, 139, 141 Canasol, 173
Arichidonic acid, 139 Cancer, 156, 177, 178
Arizona, 168 chemotherapy, 15, 162, 179, 180,
Arrests, 7, 15, 128, 150, 193, 224, 181, 182, 184, 185, 195
229, 235, 236, 237, 247 lung, 143, 155, 156, 164, 181
Arthritis, 174, 191, 192 pain, 177, 178
Asia, 4, 8, 9, 17, 25 Cannabidiol, 113, 114, 123, 125, 126,
Aspirin, 139, 144, 163, 169, 174 129, 140, 190, 191, 192, 195
Assassins, 19, 22, 27, 215, 216 Cannabinoid, 28, 145–151, 177, 179,
Asthma, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 171, 191, 182, 183, 186–195
192 pharmacology, 122–140
Attention deficit disorder (ADD), 72, receptor, 131, 136, 137, 138, 139,
171, 192 140, 150, 151, 177, 182, 183,
Australia, 211, 232, 234, 235 188, 189
synthetic, 127, 180
Cannabinol, 4, 123, 124, 125, 129,
Balzac, H., 21, 22, 105
140, 157
Barbiturates, 61, 113, 134
Beck, A. T., 256, 257
consumption, 17, 23, 31, 45, 56, 59,
Benzodiazepines, 113, 151
80, 95, 103, 110, 199, 204–209,
Bhang, 18, 87, 88, 126, 127
217, 229, 235, 256
Binge, 35, 36, 40, 46, 258
extracts, 13, 19, 125, 126, 127, 133,
Birth, 9, 11, 12, 27
defects, 158
health effects, 143–166
weight, 160, 161
history of, 3, 16, 26, 79
Blindness, 15, 172, 187
intoxication, 17, 24, 67, 68, 69, 70,
Blood pressure, 140
73, 74, 99–120, 137, 151
Boggs Act, 24, 28
social problems and, 210, 212, 214,
Boire, R. G., 226
215, 218, 221
Brahmakrishna, 228
Cannabis Revenue and Education Act,
Brain, 92, 148, 150, 186
239, 240
Brain waves, 68, 77, 92–94, 150–153,
Cannabis sativa, 3, 12, 128
Causality, 49, 50, 51, 52, 55, 56
British Medical Association, 191
Center on Addiction and Substance
Bronchitis, 154, 155, 164
Abuse (CASA), 232
Buddhism, 112
Cerebellum, 139, 150, 151
Bureau of Census, 210
Cerebral atrophy, 149
Burton, R., 12, 14, 27, 254
Cerebral blood flow (CBF), 150, 151,
Cachexia, 183, 185, 186 Chait, L. D., 21, 69–76, 102, 117,
Caffeine, 31, 32, 38, 39, 56, 57, 59, 118, 157, 205
135, 163, 165, 273 Charas, 126
California, 15, 91, 101, 129, 168, 185, Chemotherapy. See Cancer,
211, 225, 234, 235, 242 chemotherapy
Index 321

China, 8, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 26, 27, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
116 (DSM), 37, 39, 42, 43, 44
Chowdhury, A. N., 115, 117 Diarrhea, 183
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Disinhibition, 70, 71, 76, 80, 91, 94
(COPD), 155, 156 Dizziness, 158, 178, 179, 187
Civil War, the, 6, 7 Dopamine, 50, 137, 189, 190
Clarke, R. C., 112, 127, 128 Down’s syndrome, 35
Clay, H., 6 Dreher, M. C., 11, 161
Codeine. See Opiates Driving, 31, 42, 73, 79, 197, 209, 210–
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, 209, 221, 225, 234, 240, 241
247, 249, 254–269 Dronabinol (Marinol), 16, 28, 121,
Cognitive impairments, 60, 82 126, 127, 133, 164, 170, 171,
Colorado, 234 181, 184, 185, 194, 253
Comprehensive Drug Abuse Drug companies, 168, 170, 187
Prevention and Control Act, 168 Drug Enforcement Administration, 7,
Computer assisted tomography (CAT) 16, 28, 31, 225
scan, 149, 150 Drug market, 54, 60
Connors, G., 10, 17, 61, 126, 174 Drug testing, 225, 242, 243, 244
Consciousness, altered, 3, 145, 273, Drug Watch Oregon, 197
274 Dry mouth, 23, 38, 115, 189
Convulsions, 190 Dumas, A., 21, 22
Costa Rica, 80, 88, 206 DuPont, R., 135
Crane v. Campbell (1917), 230 Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare,
CREAE (Chronic relapsing and Sport, 234
experimental allergic Dysentery, 12
encephalomyletitis), 188, 189 Dysphoria, 209, 220
Creativity, 20, 21, 115, 207 Dystonia, 189, 190, 194
Crime, 217
Ecological environment, 7, 36, 40, 97,
Criminalization, 225, 244
99, 100, 132, 257
Cultivation, 4, 5, 6, 15, 42, 225
Egypt, 12, 20, 23, 26, 27, 28
Cyclic adenosine monophosphate
Electroencephalogram (EEG), 92, 151,
(cAMP), 136, 137
152, 154
Emphysema, 41, 143, 155, 156
Da Orta, G, 12
Employment, 7, 51, 63, 67, 77, 78,
DARE. See Prevention, DARE
127, 162, 195, 199, 236, 239,
Dawes, R. M., 255
257, 260
Decriminalization, 60, 223–225, 232–
Endorphins, 139
239, 244, 245, 272
England, 5, 6, 13, 14, 27, 180
Delinquency, 160, 161
Ephedra, 10
Dementia, 79, 82
Epilepsy, 13, 191
Department of Health and Human
Euphoria, 118
Services (DHHS), 168
Europe, 4, 8, 11, 13, 20, 26, 168
Dependence, 29, 37, 39, 45
Depression. See Mood Disorder, FDA (Food and Drug Administration),
depression 28, 170, 186
322 Index

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Herodotus, 6, 17, 26

235 Heroin. See Opiates; heroin
Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 19, 216, Herpes, 163
224 Hilts, P. J., 32
Finn, P. R., 53 Hinduism, 10, 18, 25, 116, 228
Foucault, M., 33 Hippocampus, 139
France, 4, 14, 20, 21, 26 Histories, The, 6, 17, 26
French Academy of Science, 21 HIV (human immunodeficiency virus),
164, 183, 184
Galen, 8, 11, 27 Hume, D., 50, 51, 53, 56
Ganja, 18, 126 Huntington’s Chorea, 2, 189, 190,
Gateway theory, 50, 51, 52, 55 193, 195
Gautier, T., 21, 22, 28, 98, 102, 103,
105, 107, 114 Illicit drugs, 29, 47, 50, 52, 59, 63,
Ginsberg, A., 24, 56, 98, 101, 102 112, 127, 146, 150, 160, 192,
Glaucoma, 3, 15, 26, 28, 105, 171, 206, 207, 208, 240–244, 252, 271
172, 173, 194 Immune system, 121, 124, 137, 139,
Gould, S. J., 180 141, 162, 183, 185, 272
Greece, 4, 11, 17, 26, 168 Imprisonment, 16, 42, 71, 193, 206,
Grinspoon, L., 2, 12–16, 113, 145, 225, 238
170, 174, 176, 177, 179, 180, India, 4, 9–13, 18, 19, 23, 25, 82, 87,
191, 192, 254 116, 126, 144, 168, 180, 187,
Hallucination, 17, 21, 103, 145 Inhalation, 131
Hallucinogens, 21, 22, 32, 61, 146 Insomnia, 9, 14, 113, 171, 191, 194
LSD, 21, 32, 56, 80, 146, 168 Institute of Medicine (IOM), 50, 124,
mushrooms, 32, 146 127, 131, 139, 157, 163, 164,
Haloperidol, 181, 189 170, 172, 173, 176, 177, 180–191
Hasan Ibn Sabah, 19, 27, 215, 216 Intoxicant, 16
Hashish, 11, 14, 18–23, 26–28, 84, Intoxicated, 67, 68, 69, 73, 74, 75, 76,
99, 100, 102, 103, 105–111, 114, 103, 271
132, 133, 141, 145, 157, 215, Intraocular pressure. See Glaucoma
216, 224, 233 Investigational New Drug (IND), 193
oil, 121, 126, 127, 128, 140 IQ, 80, 82, 87, 91, 93
Hashish Club, the, 14, 21, 22, 28, Islam, 215
102, 103, 105 Iversen, L. L., 2, 128, 144, 154
Hashish Eater, The, 23, 28, 224
Hawaii, 7, 28, 225 Jamaica, 78, 126, 160, 161, 205, 206
Haydar, 18, 27 Japan, 8
Headache, 168, 172, 175, 176, 177 Job performance, 40, 205
migraine, 176 Judaism, 228
Hearst, W. R., 24, 216, 231
Hemophilia, 35 Kentucky, 6, 7, 27
Hemp, 3–17, 24–28, 128, 144, 197, Kleiman, M. A. R., 214, 236, 239, 240
216, 231 Koro, 115, 116, 117
Index 323

LaBrie, J., 84 Meloncholia. See Mood disorder

Law and policy, 223 Memory, 10, 52, 67–97, 100, 104,
Leary, T., 14–16, 21, 30, 105, 149, 110–113, 118, 137, 139, 141,
151, 172, 173, 228 168, 210, 249
Leary v. U.S. (1967), 228 Menstrual cramps, 9, 171, 192
Legalization, 28, 239 Mental illness, 14, 24, 28, 44, 143–
Lenson, D., 33, 232 147, 164, 216, 230
Levonantradol, 121, 127, 176, 180 Metabolism, 108, 125, 132, 134, 135,
Liese, B., 256, 257 140, 150, 151, 184
Linnaeus, C., 12, 27 Methadone. See Opiates, methadone
Longitudinal study, 145, 147, 154, Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. See
161 MDMA
LSD. See Hallucinogens, LSD Metoclopamide, 181
Ludlow, F. H., 23, 26, 28, 98, 114, Mexico, 126, 224
223 Middle East, 10, 12, 19–21
Lung, 155, 156. See also Cancer, lung Migraine. See Headache, migraine
Mikuriya, T., 14, 113, 129, 177, 185
MacCoun, R. J., 232, 234, 238 Miller, W. R., 112, 266
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Minnesota, 234
149, 150, 151 Mississippi, 128, 234
Maine, 234, 235 Mood disorder, 12, 254
Maisto, S. A., 10, 17, 61, 126, 174 bipolar, 192
Malaysia, 238, 244 depression, 9, 14, 27, 145, 148, 161,
Marijuana 170, 178, 183, 187, 192, 199,
abuse, 41, 240 200, 208, 209, 248, 254, 269,
and alcohol, 102 274
cigarette, 108, 130, 131, 144, 171, Moreau de Tours, J-J, 14, 21, 26, 28,
181, 202 99, 102, 105
dependence, 29, 37, 39 Motivation. See Amotivational
intoxication, 42, 49, 59, 60, 67–76, syndrome
97–118, 139, 144, 151, 173, 183, Motivational interviewing, 247, 254,
210, 215–224, 232, 241, 271 255, 264–269
medical uses of, 3, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, Multiple sclerosis, 113, 127, 186, 187,
15, 16, 26, 27, 28, 167–196 189, 195
Marijuana Anonymous, 261, 262 Muscle spasms, 9, 168, 187
Marijuana prohibition, 23, 24, 197, Mushrooms. See Hallucinogens,
201, 202, 223–226, 231, 235– mushrooms
237, 244 Musto, D. F., 23, 231
Marijuana Tax Act, 8, 9, 14, 24, 28,
111, 168, 187, 224, 244 Nabilone, 15, 28, 127
Marinol. See Dronabinol Nahas, G. G., 11, 49, 50, 130, 144,
Marlatt, G. A., 35, 36, 44, 252, 258 159, 163, 197
Massachusetts, 5, 240 Narcotics Anonymous, 261, 262
MDMA, 32, 52 National Drug Strategy Household
Megestrol acetate (Megace), 185 Survey, 234
324 Index

National Institute on Drug Abuse Parents, 30, 41, 49, 62, 63, 162, 198,
(NIDA), 30, 46, 197, 198, 233, 204, 216, 248
247 Parkinson’s disease, 137, 189, 190,
National Organization for the Reform 194, 195
of Marijuana Laws (NORML), 24, Peele, S., 35, 36, 44, 247
28, 42, 92, 150, 205, 210, 214, Peer, 30
230 pressure, 60, 63
Native American Church, 112, 228 Penicillin, 169
Nausea and vomiting, 16, 127, 171, Pennsylvania, 240
176, 177, 179, 180, 182, 185, Petro, D. J., 4, 11, 187, 188, 191
194 Peyote, 112, 228, 229
Nebraska, 234 Phantom limb pain, 174
Neighborhoods, 57, 236 Pharmacopoeia, 9, 11, 14, 27, 28, 168,
Nervous system, 95, 121, 124, 136, 177
187, 198 Phencyclidine, 92
Netherlands, 54, 60, 232–235, 238, Physicians, 10, 16, 25, 33, 126, 162,
239 169, 170, 174, 177, 179–181,
Neurotransmitters, 137, 141, 147, 182 185, 187, 188, 193, 194
New York, 207, 234, 239 Pipes, 12, 18, 27, 127, 157, 225
Nicotine, 253 Placeboes, 36, 51, 60, 69, 100, 107,
tobacco, 154, 155 109, 113, 117, 128, 158, 258
Nielson Co., A. C., 241 in medicine, 163, 170, 173, 175,
Nitrogen in a benzopyran derivative 176, 178, 179, 180, 183, 184,
(NIB), 179 188, 190, 191, 192
NORML. See National Organization in studies of social problems, 200,
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws 202, 203, 212, 213, 220
NORML v. Bell, 230 Plato, 257
North Carolina, 234 Pliny the Elder, 5, 11, 27, 174
North Dakota, 7, 28 Plutarch, 17, 27
Police, 7, 15, 61, 62, 129, 158, 225,
Ohio, 14, 234 226, 233, 237, 272
Opiates, 174, 178 Polydrug use, 84, 86, 87, 88, 90
heroin, 24, 32, 38, 49, 50–60, 64, Pope, H. G., 79, 85, 91, 207, 209,
65, 116, 168, 224, 234, 248, 251– 219
253 Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
methadone, 253 153, 171, 192
morphine, 14, 136, 139, 174, 178 Potassium, 9, 137
opium, 10, 22, 23 Potency, 13, 19, 31, 124, 127, 128,
Opium. See Opiates, opium 129, 140, 168, 236
Oregon, 234, 235, 240 Monitoring Project, 128, 129
Pregnancy, 143, 160, 161, 162
Pain sensitivity, 139 Premenstrual syndrome (Premenstrual
Paranoia, 21, 22, 99, 114, 119, 140, dysphoric disorder), 44
145, 146, 271 Prevention, 47, 49, 60–66, 233, 236,
Index 325

239, 249, 250, 251, 254, 258, Sesame oil, 127, 133
259 Sex, 14, 20, 26, 43, 71, 72, 97, 107,
DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance 111, 112, 188, 267, 274
Education), 60–62, 64 Sexual function, 188
Indiana Prevention Resource Center, Sexuality, 97, 111, 119
197 Shen Neng, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, 25, 26,
Progesterone, 159, 185 168
Project MATCH, 255, 260 Side effects, 10, 11, 15, 117, 125,
Psychosis, 21, 115, 144, 145 126, 167, 170–186, 189, 191,
192, 194, 244, 254
Queen Arnegunde, 7, 27 Singapore, 238, 244
Queen Elizabeth, 5 Sleep, 38, 97, 113, 114, 115, 119,
Queen Victoria, 14, 28, 113 124, 140, 186, 187, 191, 216
Sloman, L., 216, 224
Rabelais, F., 12, 27 Sobell, L. C., & M. B., 248
Randall, R. C., 14, 15, 16, 105, 172, Solowij, N., 92, 146, 151, 152, 205
173 Spasticity, 186
Rastafarian Church, 112 Sperm, 143, 158, 159, 164
Ravin v. State (Alaska 1975), 229 Spinal cord injury, 186, 187, 195
Reaction time, 68, 70, 71, 73, 74, 75, Stacy, A., 58, 60
76, 80, 87, 88, 94, 201 Stages of change model, 265, 266, 267
Recreational use, 3, 9, 12, 17, 25, 26, Stroop task, 71, 74, 91
168, 224, 271 Strupp, H. H., 255
Relapse, 35, 249–259, 266, 267, 268 Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Residual effects. See Withdrawal Services Administration
Respiratory system, 157 (SAMHSA), 25, 30, 53, 231
Reynolds, J. R., 14, 28, 113 Suppositories, 131, 133, 141, 184,
Roffman, R. A, 14, 33, 36, 248, 249, 185, 253
251 Sussman, S., 58, 60, 214, 217
Rogers, C., 217, 265 Szasz, T., 33, 230, 239
Rosenthal, E., 7, 8, 16, 113, 177, 185,
236 Taiwan, 3, 4, 26
Rosenthal, F., 18 Taoist, 17, 18
Rosenthal, R., 64 Tart, C. T., 18, 70, 73, 99, 101–117,
Rubin, V., 4, 6, 82, 152 183, 186
Russia, 4, 5, 26, 27, 61 Tashkin, D. P., 155, 163
Taxes, 8, 14, 168, 224, 236, 239, 240,
Satz, P., 80, 84, 86, 88 245, 274
Schizophrenia, 145, 146, 153, 164, T-cells, 162, 163
171, 192 Television, 24
Schuckit, M., 38 Temporal antecedence, 50, 51, 52, 53,
Secobarbital, 178, 179 55, 56, 64, 200
Sedation, 113, 114, 152, 179, 189, 215 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), 4, 9, 14,
Seizures, 190, 191, 195 16, 18, 19, 26, 28, 38, 50, 51, 60,
326 Index

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (cont. ) University of California at San

70, 100, 101, 109, 112, 113, 118, Francisco, 185
200, 201, 211–215, 218, 220, 253 Urine, 31, 78, 80, 91, 134, 135, 136,
11-OH-delta-9 THC, 122 243, 249
delta-9-THC, 140, 180 Urquhart, D., 22
dosage, 128, 129, 143
health effects, 144–166 Vaillant, 247
medical effects, 170–194 Venereal disease, 13
pharmacology, 121–143 Vigilance, 70, 72, 76, 94
synthetic, 172, 180, 184 Violence, 19, 20, 22, 24, 187, 214–
Texas, 224 220, 224, 231
Thalidomide, 186 Vitamins, 9, 186
Time perception, 68, 73, 87, 102 Vomiting. See Nausea and Vomiting
Tincture, 25, 133, 168
Tobacco. See Nicotine, tobacco Wampold, B. E., 255, 265
Tolerance, 36, 38 Weight loss, 15, 108, 126, 182, 183,
Toxicity, 143, 273 184, 194
Traffic safety. See Driving Withdrawal, 32, 36, 37, 38, 39, 116,
Tranquilizers, 178, 179 174, 214, 218–220, 249, 253
Twelve-step facilitation, 247, 249, hangover, 40, 117, 118, 119, 272
254, 260–269
Zacny, J. R., 157
Zeese, K., 193
United States, 7, 30, 31, 54, 127, 144, Zimmer, L., & Morgan, J. P., 16, 31,
168, 206, 223, 225, 272 50, 55, 86, 92, 128, 136, 155,
University of California at Los 160, 163, 204, 214, 215, 234
Angeles, 15 Zion Coptic Church, 112, 228